Sunday, May 17, 2009

Our National Pastime: The Great Dick Cheney Psyche Out

"Enhanced interrogation was reverse-engineered to create a false linkage between Iraq, Al Qaeda and the events of 9/11. Just ask yourself — why would anyone want to do that?"

In a recent interview with the C-realm, petrocollapse author James Howard Kunstler said he was allergic to conspiracy theories. While we are sympathetic, we find it hard to draw a firm line between conspiracy rants, news shows, and intelligence briefings these days. Maybe it is the effect Wikipedia has had on the study of history, or perhaps it is the blurring of the line between popular culture infotainment and the more serious work of running countries, economies, and wars.

Just now the talking heads in the mediasphere are all abuzz: why hasn’t Dick Cheney clammed up and disappeared into the woodwork like Bush? He is expending great energy to psyche us all out. Why? To what end?

The popular storyline from the left (The Nation, Slate, MSNBC, Air America, Sirius-Left) is that Cheney is filling the void on the Republican right wing and vying with Limbaugh for party boss. That nearly 60% of Republicans wish he would just disappear for a couple of years makes it fun fodder for Saturday Night Live.

The bobblehead thread on the right, when it can be coalesced for longer than one news cycle, is that (a) Cheney is right, Obama is undermining national security, torture works, waterboarding is not torture, and extremism in defense of liberty is … whatever; or (b) Cheney is wrong, but well-reasoned, and good people can disagree, nothing amiss here, these are not the ones we are looking for, move along.

But there is a darker side here, and it traces to 9/11, the quest for control of oil, and the New American Century and Empire Strikes Back meta-goals involving dominance and hegemony.

What we know from the Congressional hearings this week and from other sources contradicts Dick’s talking points pretty definitively. To paraphrase George Washington’s blog:

Torture doesn't work. It can’t provide reliable information that could keep us safe. It provides whatever confessions the torturers want it to.

Torture actually reduces our national security. It is just a different form of terrorism, and it begets more terrorism by example and reprisal.

Most of those we have tortured since 2001 were innocent, and a untold number -- at least 99 that we know of so far -- died, the most recent this past week of post-traumatic “suicide.”

HUMAN RIGHTS INVESTIGATOR JOHN SIFTON: These aggressive techniques were not just limited to the high-value detainee program in the CIA. They spread to the military with disastrous results. They led to the deaths of human beings. And when there’s a corpse involved, when there’s a dead body involved, you can’t just have a debate about policy differences and looking forward or looking backward.

Sleep and sensory deprivation and other techniques can cause permanent brain damage. There are US torture victims still imprisoned who have been reduced to zombies, and who can never be tried because they lack mental capacity. They are consigned to vegetable wards. If we close Gitmo, they will have to be root cellared in Kansas, Missouri, or other federal fruit baskets.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of victims were not tortured in order to prevent terrorist attacks, but in order to do precisely what “enhanced interrogation” was reverse-engineered to do: create a false justification for the war in Iraq (by creating a false linkage between Iraq and Al Qaeda) and to conceal and obfuscate the events of 9/11. The first victims singled out for torture were used to create a narrative story-line for 9/11 — and other justifications for invasion of the oil-rich Middle East came later.

Torture, historically, is a form of intimidation, to terrorize people into obedience. The English aristocracy were especially good at it, which may have something to do with its appeal to Republicans (both in the US and Ireland). It is continued, even though ineffective, according to the FBI interrogation specialist who just testified to Congress, because it is easy, not because it works. It is used to coerce false confessions, or lay false rabbit trails, not to gain intelligence.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Well, the Vice President’s suggesting that there was good information obtained, and I’d like the committee to get that information. Let’s have both sides of the story here. I mean, one of the reasons these techniques have survived for about 500 years is apparently they work.

FBI SPECIAL AGENT ALI SOUFAN: Because, sir, there’s a lot of people who don’t know how to interrogate—


ALI SOUFAN: —and it’s easier to hit someone than outsmart them.

The 9/11 Commission report was primarily based upon confessions from those who were excessively waterboarded. Some who survived have since recanted. None of the 9/11 information obtained this way is credible. Did Al Qaeda hijack the jetliners? Was Osama Bin Laden involved? We simply do not know. We know more about Marvin Bush or Prince Bandar’s involvement in 9/11 than we know about Osama Bin Laden’s.

If we really want to reduce attacks against the U.S. and against NATO troops, than the way forward is to prosecute those who created the torture program and to understand what the purpose for that program really was. Cheney knows, but is not telling.
Or was Cheney a dummy? Is he being proactive in defense (of torture prosecution/extradition), while not understanding the full crime being exposed (9/11)? We don’t know.

Is he setting himself up as the fall guy, making it embarrassing to prosecute him because it would seem like a political reprisal? Hard to say. We just observe that the Kabuki is getting very interesting.
JOHN SIFTON: Yeah, well, I don’t know if it’s successful yet, but I certainly think that his methodology is one in which he thinks he will be covered if there is ever, God forbid, a terrorist attack on US territory again, and then he will be vindicated, in his mind. I hope Americans are intelligent enough to see through that and realize that it’s not that simple.
We do know Dick is smart, just maybe not as smart as he thinks he is. This is a high stakes enterprise. If Bush Sr., James Baker and the rest of that cabal begin to feel the heat, they may have more tools at their disposal than Dick foresees. Squirming is not what they do. He is vulnerable, even with a waning Secret Service protection cordon.

You are on a pacemaker, old man, after all.

Seeing Cheney as a patsy, or patsy-to-be, is a reach, but not entirely impossible. Bush is laying low, building a presidential library, giving a non-controversial speech or two in safe venues, like Canada. Keeping his head down. That is what a guilty party would do. Cheney is out making noise, trying to pre-empt or politicize the investigations. It is also what a guilty party might do, but the risks are much higher. He is tickling the dragon’s tail.
BOB SCHIEFFER: Did President Bush know everything you knew?

DICK CHENEY: I certainly, yeah, have every reason to believe he knew—he knew a great deal about the program. He basically authorized it. I mean, this was a presidential-level decision, and the decision went to the President, and he signed off on it.
The spin from the Republican inner circle is that Cheney is hawking a memoirs deal. Bull. He doesn’t need the money. No, he is casting himself as a victim, making it impolitic to arrest and deport him. It is also a (presumedly futile) attempt to derail the torture investigation, before it leads back up the 9/11 trail. Maybe he thought he had nailed that deal with President Obama and Speaker Pelosi before he left Washington, but now it seems to be unraveling, so he is doing darning.

Or maybe he is falling on his sword, taking one for the team, a la Ollie North or E. Gordon Liddy. With all eyes on Darth, no-one seems to look around and notice the expanding Drone Wars to hold back the oil famine.

As Will Ferrell's George Bush told Darrell Hammond's Dick Cheney on last night’s Saturday Night Live, “Just stick to our plan. Let’s let history be the judge, okay? It’s an awesome plan because history takes forever.”

Whether you buy into the conspiracies or are allergic like Mr. Kunstler, it makes great theater. So will the trials.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Permaculture Army: Belize Boot Camp

"We could share ideas with the millions of other permaculturists around the world, in the common language of the 'permaculture army'"

We’ve been receiving memoirs of our recent Permaculture Course at Maya Mountain Research Center and would like to share some of those with a wider audience now. Forgive the 5000 word length of this compendium, but we think you will agree it is worth it.

Into the Jungle

From Michael:
(original at EYESLIKESAUCERS, Wednesday, April 22, 2009)

We are crouched in the dory, a traditional canoe carved from a solid tree trunk, being punted upstream through the darkening jungle. The vine covered rafters reach over us, blackening into the night sky. Jorge struggles valiently but weighed low with passengers we frequently grind to a halt and have to jump out barefoot and push. It starts to drizzle, only adding to the atmosphere.

Eventually we arrive, slipping precariously up the bank with our lumps of luggage, climbing a stepped slope until we arrive at a covered courtyard and calls of welcome from our fellow students. We've reached the Maya Mountain Research Farm (MMRF) ready to begin a two week Permaculture Design Course.


MMRF is the life's work of Christopher Nesbitt, a forty-something New Yorker who in the eighties swapped the furious pace of a Manhattan cycle courier for a seventy acre damaged citrus farm in Southern Belize. From his early days living in a wooden shack, beholden to the sun for wake-up calls and lights-out, he has observed, studied, planted and nurtured his land into a lush and productive agroforestry system. Papaya, pineapple, breadnut, corn, beans, coconuts, eggs, vanilla, cacao, coffee... the list goes on and on. Solar panel by solar panel, stone by stone he has built a comfortable, light-filled home - complete with kitchen, book-lined study and panoramic vista'd bedroom - fit for the cover of glossy magazine.

Although the dreadlocks went decades ago he's not shaved since eighteen and Chris could now be credited with creating the 'Jungle Rabbinic' look: cropped hair and vast beard, baggy Carhartt pants betraying his urban roots, wellingtons, army surplus rucksack slung over one shoulder and rifle or machete over the other. His face is open and kind but his large, sad eyes hint at the tough graft and personal tragedies that he's overcome building his home in the jungle of this sparsely populated river valley.

Chris was the perfect host and his farm the perfect location to study something that I hoped desperately could offer a last minute reprieve to a world on life-support.

'Permanent Agriculture'

Permaculture is short for 'permanent agriculture'. It sums up the ambitious hopes of its founders, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who in 1978 launched it with the publication of Permaculture One. In 1988 the hefty Permaculture: A Designers' Manual was published, one percent ethics and ninety percent practical design instruction, where the definition given is "the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive and healthy ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems." Still not clear? I wasn't either.

Most of my fellow students weren't entirely sure, but our anticipation grew during the introduction: we were to be learning a whole new vocabulary that included the mysterious 'swales', the principle of 'stacking functions' and the crucial tool of 'needs and yields analysis'. With it we could share ideas with the millions of other permaculturists around the world, in the common language of the 'permaculture army'.

There were sixteen students, of all ages and backgrounds. Many were from the U.S. but there was a Canadian, some Mexicans, a Trinidadian and some Belizian Mopan Mayans on scholarship. Three teachers joined Chris — Albert Bates, Maria Antoinetta Martinez Ros and and Andrew 'Goodheart' Brown - making an eclectic and experienced team who each brought their own angle. Initially teaching was theory-heavy as we learnt key principles of ecology and of permaculture design. Later in the week we practiced mapping out an area of the farm, using our bodies as rulers - our result was 2,000 square 'Erles' - and learnt how to use a simple A-frame to measure along the contours of a slope to dig a swale - simply a shallow ditch that catches and holds water, but a key tool to build healthy soil.

Piece by piece it started to make sense.


We were starting to get a feel for the weather patterns. It had moved from rain most of the day to sun in the morning, rain in the afternoon. The days were beginning to get a little drier and the farm paths were becoming less swamp-like! Practical work that had to be postponed due to the unusual weather was now foremost on our minds. It was time to start putting in place some of the plans Chris had as well as some of the simple designs we had come up with over the last few days.

The morning started with us rebuilding Chris’s graywater system that handles water from all the kitchen sinks. His initial barrel of charcoal and gravel was getting clogged up and smelly from food particles that made it past the sink strainer. He wanted us to install a new barrel next to the one he had so that he could rotate between the two, letting one dry out every so often which would help it stop clogging. We had come up with the idea that if we put a fine mesh over the barrels, most of the food particles would get trapped on it and we could use the chickens to hop onto the barrel and peck the food particles off. One smelly unpleasant task happily carried out by the resident animals with a little bit of thought and design!

We had all the components for the new system. The gravel came from the river, the charcoal from the left over coals from the fireplace and the barrel Chris had found about a year ago dumped by the side of the road. Within an hour the new system was in place. Once the gray water went through the charcoal (to trap most of the chemical within the detergents and soaps) and gravel it was piped into a second barrel that was just filled with gravel. The gravel allowed for a huge surface area over which a bacterial biofilm would grow that would further break down any dissolved organic compounds coming with the water. The water then flowed into and was absorbed by a swale uphill from a row of pineapples planted on contour. One potential waste harvested and recycled. We were closing a loop.

A Deficit of Ducks


There's a story that one day a student was lamenting to permaculture's founder, Bill Mollison, about loosing her lettuces to an onslaught of slugs. "You don't have a surplus of slugs problem." he replied. "You have a deficit of ducks". It neatly illustrates the goal of permaculture - to think like an ecosystem and strive always to 'close the loop'.

The carefully fostered illusion of consumer culture is that things magically appear and disappear to satisfy our needs. Yet every bit of matter passing through our hands comes from and returns to the earth's ecosystem and is part of its cycles. (A point made brilliantly in The Story of Stuff). Extraction and disposal have consequences and these can only be ignored for so long before they return to bite us. Simply put, our waste is wasting us - most prominently, our waste carbon, which we thought we could walk away from. Surprise, surprise, we can't. 'Up in smoke' should not be a synonym for disappeared.

Nature works in cycles and so permaculture rejects the whole concept of 'waste'. Waste is a resource that we've not been smart enough to put to good use yet. No good use at all - spent nuclear fuel rods, for example - is a warning that whatever system is producing it has no sustainable place in the world. There's no waste in nature as such.

So one of the key tools we learnt was 'Needs and Yields Analysis'. Each element of a design has needs and yields and the aim is to match them up - to close the loop. The chickens on Chris's farm are my favorite example. They need food, water, space to roam, a safe place for the night. They yield products and useful services: kitchen scraps disappear greedily, turned into tasty eggs and nutrient rich droppings. A big problem for tropical farmers are Leafcutter Ants, or 'Wee Wees'. The fossil fuel solution: put poison in the system, pesticides bought from outside - a complex external industrial product. The permaculture solution: Wee Wees as chicken food. Having been chased from my bed by Soldier Ants I gained a new found respect for the chicken as I watched them gobble up huge-pincered ants streaming from an aggravated nest.


My initial exposure to permaculture was an old photocopy of Permaculture 1 handed to me in Trinidad twelve years ago. I had grown up in Kenya, moved to Canada for university and was now looking to go into aquaculture in the Caribbean with my wife who was Trinidadian. We were coming straight out of university with plenty of ideas and information but very little experience. I read Permaculture 1 cover to cover a few times and eventually bought the ‘bible’, the Designers Manual. Those two books kept me busy for the next 8 years as I quietly went about drawing plans, observing, experimenting and slowly watching my drawings come to life on our farm.

We had two young children, were exporting tropical fish to pet stores in Canada, growing flowers for the local market and reforesting whatever space we had no immediate use for. There was hardly anyone else in Trinidad practicing permaculture and no one had heard of the word whenever I brought it up. I had no idea of the permaculture community globally and the only reason I kept going was that it made absolute sense. I had no time for much else.

As the children got a little older, I got into adventure racing, a sport that puts you out in the bush to run, ride and kayak while trying to find markers with only a map and coordinates. Adventure racing and permaculture went well — you’ve got to respect nature, you have to observe and you have to do everything using only the effort your body can put out. I did really well and I also ran into Johnny Stollmeyer, this fifty something year old self described ex-hippy, anarchist, deep ecologist and bioregionalist (none of the words which I knew the meanings of) who had a mohawk, composting toilet, made his living as an artist selling natural jewelry, only wore cotton, made his own natural version of Gatorade that would be fermented by the end of a race and whose knees were not going to take another season of adventure racing. And he knew all about Permaculture. To cut the story short, we eventually hosted the first PDC in Trinidad in 2007 with Peter Bane, which really enlightened me on concepts that I had merely read about as well as opened my eyes to the vast permaculture community globally. Over the next 2 years we started up our own permaculture consulting company and taught our first PDC together. Now I was in Belize taking another PDC to fill in some of my teaching gaps. All of which brings me to the next class.

Our second class for the morning took place in the ‘official’ classroom overlooking the valley. Albert introduced us to the bigger picture. It was time to begin looking past our immediate farms and gardens to the wider picture of communities, ecovillages and cities. We went over the dynamics and logistics of growth, going over the various orders and hierarchies associated with groups of different sizes and the pros and cons of different systems. The pinnacle of the session was Albert’s own experiences of the Farm in Tennessee, one of the oldest intentional communities in the world. To describe what Albert showed us in his presentation would take a whole other article but I will just describe the emotions that most people felt ranging from laughter as he described artists trying to wrap their brains around engineering difficulties in the early years of the community, to tears as he talked about the last bus load of volunteers from Plenty leaving Guatemala (leaving behind locals that eventually died at the hands of the military governments supported by the US), to awe at what was achieved in the Farm over the last 40 years. More than that, the presentation finally filled in many of the gaps I had about the hippie movement, bioregionalism and permaculture on an American scale and gave me a clearer picture of where my teaching partner in Trinidad was coming from. The second loop closed for the day and we hadn’t had lunch yet!


Having taken part in two PDC's before, the real reason I came to Central America was to find out if the wet/dry tropics of Belize is a suitable place for a gringo to easily grow food, drink water and start a community -- fun post-peak oil needs that few places on Earth can provide.

Going [on field trip] to Saul's agroforestry farm near the village of San Pedro Columbia, I got an idea of what tropical agriculture could look like. Experimenting for 48 years, Saul, a 71-year old man with strong arms and wise smile, has taught himself how to turn 6 acres of forest into enough food for his family, friends and some for market. His is the classic tale of a man whose community gave him what was thought to be some of the worst land, and he made a little paradise of it.

He cultivates 50-60 species, staying far away from the dangers that monoculture can bring -- not only does monocropping deplete your soil and make growing on the same land more difficult as it erodes away your nutrients, but monocropping also provides no backup crop were a disease to knock out your mainstay crop, and economic relief where demand for a farmer's particular crop of choice could drop, making worthless an entire year or more of work. The high bird diversity is a sign that his polycultural design is working well.

Apart from the work of designing the guilds which determine the plants that best grow together on his land, his days are mostly filled with cleaning out brush and spreading mulch. I wrote notes quickly and his English was hard for me to decipher, but from what I understood he grows mangoes, mahogany, cacao, coffee, sugar cane, avocado, coconuts and more.

At the end of our tour, we broke open some coconuts and drank right out of the fruit. It tasted a bit like Fresca, sans aspartame, carbonation and preservatives. When we had all had enough of the elixir, we crushed some cane juice with a hand-made, hand-cranked double-roller squeezer contraption. The sweet juice dripped from the cane into a tub, from which we all drank. It tasted like Sprite, sans high fructose corn syrup, plastic, and Coca Cola union crushing. I made sure to take a left over cane and chew it on the ride back.

The Source

We walked to "The Source" today, a powerful spring that is the main source of the large creek/small river that lines Christopher's property and provides the bathing, swimming, washing and (sometimes) drinking water for the village a few miles downstream.

I got in the river and stood next to this 3' wide spring, letting it wash up to my chest. Not much of a spiritual person nor a religious one, I still felt a sense of awe. This is the water that came from all parts of the world, evaporated into the sky, formed into clouds, travelled, dropped into this watershed, flowed continuously through the cleansing soil, and burst out to this tiny spot.

Some day, I thought, I will be desperately thirsty, longing for the dream of fresh water exploding right in front of me. I bowed my head completely into the burst of the spring, drinking as I up drenched. Truly a time to live in the moment.


Maria, with her beautiful cloth posters, had our attention as we slowly digested yet another meal of corn, beans and freshly picked organic greens! She got us thinking about animals and their uses in permaculture. We tried to focus on the smaller animals that are easier to house and handle in an urban setting. We did needs and yields analyses for many of them and we eventually had to come up with novel uses for animals throughout the household, from frogs and turtles to chickens and goats. We also looked at stacking functions where wastes from one animal could be effectively channeled into resources for another, creating intensive vertical systems in small spaces. We reinforced many of the ideas we were learning and experimenting with earlier in the course with new examples and different situations. Redundancy is an important tool, both in permaculture and teaching!

The rain held off and the afternoon finished with a physical session of A-frame usage (to mark contours), hammering down stakes as markers and a lot of digging as we created swales along some of the swampy paths leading to and from the kitchen and dining area. The swales (drains dug on contour) would prevent water from running directly onto the paths but would hold it long enough to soak into the ground. The freshly exposed earth was then carefully mulched with coconut leaves and whatever other litter we could get to prevent the chickens from scattering it all over the place. We had overlooked this process in the morning resulting in our greywater swales disappearing under a horde of chickens scratching the newly disturbed soils. Guess that’s where the term chicken tractor came from!

Another intensive day ended with our ritual first, second or third swim in the river, a new variation of corn (or maybe we had rice) and beans for dinner and a group ginger peeling and grating session to begin the fermentation process for the ginger beer for the closing party. Yes, we did cover a lot today!

Nature Resplendent

So we are part of the loop, but everyday life constantly hides this from us. For me the beauty of studying at MMRF was that you couldn't forget this basic fact: from the bug bites yelling "you're part of the food chain" to the tasty meals cooked from ingredients plucked straight from nearby trees. For the first week I recoiled: used to a more sterile environment I was faintly flustered by it all, by bugs and bites and slippy pathways. Then I relaxed, the unseasonal showers passed, and I felt wonderfully and peacefully at home.

My favorite moments were stolen between classes: swinging gently on the hammock, cool after a swim in the river, just soaking in the sounds; cheeps, flutters, rustles, whistles, pulsing bug rubbings, the high pitched whine and zoom of passing flies; the jungle community going about its daily business, from soil to canopy top. There was a rhythm and intimacy with nature that brought a deep sense of calm.

"Normal": Discuss

As the exotic became more familiar what struck me was that this 'exotic' was nothing of the sort. This is how it has been, day after day, for millions of years. My normal (our normal) everyday life is a freakish aberration: we drive complex machines over fields of asphalt, stopping at filling stations to pay pittance for fossilized sunlight, and then carelessly burn up this rich energy resource (equivalent to thousands of hours of human labor) on activities that we could often happily do without. All civilizations are temporary, perhaps as temporary as their foundations, and we have thrown in our lot with a dwindling treasure trove of inherited energy, egged on by blind faith in free-market capitalism whose priests insist that the mighty market will provide - "We'll cross that bridge..."; "Don't plan ahead (Communist!), believe"; don't save for a rainy day...

The 'normal' has a way of lulling us into a false sense of security and permanence. For hundreds of years life was very 'normal' in this now jungle-filled river valley, when it was part of a bustling Mayan metropolis. One evening we climbed the ridge in the gold of the setting sun and through a clearing in the undergrowth looked at a beautifully set Mayan wall, 1200 years old. Chris told us that there are literally hundreds of house mounds dotted around the farm (his house is in fact built on one). At their zenith the Maya ruled an area from Southern Mexico to Northern Honduras for over 600 years before their civilization declined and came to an end. But we're smarter than them, right? We have Google and ATM machines. And cars. And toilet paper made from ancient forests. The Mayans might beg to differ and challenge us to last a little longer than the century and a half since industrialization began.

Just not seeing it

When I first walked through Chris's farm I saw trees. Just lots of trees. But walk through with Chris as translator and you start to see complex systems, carefully designed and incredibly productive: coffee and cacao shaded under breadnut trees and coconut palms, pineapple crescents catching water and building soil around saplings. My illiteracy was shared by the 'conquerors' five hundred years ago, who lamented the ignorant slash and burn agriculture while missing the carefully managed agroforestry system of the 'fallow' land (see 'Beyond Wilderness: Seeing the Garden in the Jungle').

Yes, we know more than the Mayans. Our scientific method is qualitatively different from what went before. It has given us great power. But perhaps we're all the more stupid for it.

The fertile middle ground

For me the genius of permaculture is that it recognises this stupidity but refuses to fall into the opposite trap of romanticizing past cultures. It respects both the natural systems that ultimately support all life and also the scientific method that has given us so much power to understand and influence them. My interpretation of permaculture as that it is a science-based design system. Ultimately we are completely reliant on nature, but if we approach it with respect we can understand and learn from the systems that keep our world alive. Then we can apply our intelligence and creativity to tweak and mould them to provide generously for human life. It is a middle ground between domination (destined to fail) and subservience (destructive of our humanity), aimed at creating a humane space within the natural world. A garden.

Spades out for the revolution

So that's what it boils down to: permaculture is gardening. And to think as a boy I saw my Grandfather as such an anachronism, with his rows of raspberries and inability to operate a video recorder. If engineers ruled in the 20th Century then perhaps the 21st belongs to the gardeners: scientifically literate, socially influential and operating in their millions. We hope.

'Everything gardens' is a permaculture principle and it was illustrated every night as we carefully stepped over the torch lit highway of Leafcutter Ants, ferrying green chunks in their millions back to their nest. They use the leaves to grow mould that will feed the whole colony. They hardly ever kill a tree, Chris explained, but strip only some branches before moving on. They do not destroy that which they depend upon. The heart of permaculture is learning from nature, and we could take a leaf from their book.

Short Design Project


We were all assigned an area around the compost toilet to come up with a little Permacultural paradise. My group comprised of a musician in his early 20's from the Adirondacks, a 47-year-old man from Cancun, and a 19-year-old Mayan agricultural student from the area and me, an optimistic doomer.

While we were tempted to offer our dreams and hopes right off the bat, but as someone who's studied Permaculture design for a while now, I knew we should instead focus on our observations of the area. What were the needs of the site? What were the factors with which we needed to work (sectors) -- where would fire, rain and wind come from? Where was the countour? How do we keep people away from the smell of the toilets?

We quickly designed a dream layout of what it could be like to have a little resort over the acre of land we were given. A pond with stacked functions of water storage, aquaculture, swimming, relaxation, heat relief. Ducks around the pond to eat bugs, mosquito larvae, add biodiversity to the pond and offer us eggs. Swales to slow the water down from the steep slope, spread it, sink it, so it could slowly percolate into the river. We wanted to use trees and vines from the area to design swings and a playground for the kids.

Half the idea was to have a place that would look good in pictures on the website, so as to say, "Hey, come down to tropical paradise!" Maybe the toilets would be cropped out of the shot.


The final day of the PDC started with a fantastic breakfast by Gomier and the noticeable absence of the morning circle and our daily reflection on the highlights from the previous day. The mornings contemplation was replaced by the earnest discussion, debate and laughter of each Clan/group continuing to prepare their presentations on the different design elements we had been given. Each clan working feverishly to prepare a presentation that would demonstrate the permaculture principals that that had provided us with so much inspiration throughout the course. The pressure of an afternoon deadline focused attention and chased away any melancholy that might have been caused by the conclusion of the course.

Shortly after lunch the time for the first presentation was upon us. Each group gave confident presentations displaying the permaculture designs that ranged from the small short term solutions to longer term and more ambitious and inventive design solutions. A special mention must be given to the group that Mike and Earl were in and their long term plan to raise a goat army to aid in the [clearing of the old Mayan ruins from jungle and] expansion of MMRF!

Before eating we came together for a final group reflection to share words of encouragement with one another. For me this was a particularly special time and I was moved by the strength of the friendships forged though the sharing of knowledge, food and laughter.

With the finishing touches made to peoples performance pieces we came together for our final meal together and commenced the “No talent show”. What followed was a wonderful mix of performances that ranged from the absolutely hilarious to deeply touching. The show was kicked off with a fantastic skit from Victor who displayed definite acting talent and set the tone for the rest of the show. Musical performances ranged from a comedy permaculture version of Gloria Gainers “I will survive” to the hauntingly beautiful vocal talents of Meadow Eliz. Other performances included poetry readings of peoples favourite peaces and original works, local folklore and touching personal testimony from Mariah. When the show finally wound down and concluded all were left with that pleasant tired feeling that you only get when you have laughed so much that your sides hurt! With this closing act, goodbyes and good nights were said as slowly people drifted off to bed. Festivities continued in the kitchen for a few people who were reluctant to let this magical experience come to end. After a mix of machete juggling, a martial arts display by Chris, a little more singing and a lot more chatting, all were forced to concede to the encroaching sleepiness.

It is difficult for me to find the words to accurately describe just how much my life has been enriched by my time at MMRF and the PDC, but just thinking back on it puts a smile on face and hope in my heart. I would like to thank all involved for making it such an unforgettable experience.

I Will Survive: Permaculture Remix


It was a fun-filled night tinged with sadness, as everyone pitched in for the 'No Talent' show that rounded off the two week course. I'll spare you the full version, but my group had 're-designed' Gloria Gaynor's classic 'I will survive' to include lines such as: "At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Kept thinking I could never live without these pesticides" and "But no, not us, we will survive. For as long as we know how to swale I know we'll stay alive." After two weeks we had all become quite fond of each other. I wondered where this group of radical gardeners would get to, and what difference we would make. And why the course was only two thirds full when the 'normal' world is so clearly starting to unravel.

Still, we left inspired, determined to plant and compost to a better future.

Back to Civilization

The bus was pretty swish - air conditioned, reclining chairs, video screens - but I felt uncomfortable. A growing sense of agitation was making me desperate for the journey to end.

We stopped at Gautemala's version of a service station. As I looked round at a forest of plastic, tin cylinders behind glass and bulging humans poking at synthetic food on polyester plates, I realized what I was suffering - culture shock. I was trying to place it all in the natural cycles I'd become used to and so little of it would fit.

It showed the change my fortnight at MMRF had brought. In my five years of 'environmentalism', first of study then work, I've heard lots of theory about living within the earth's limits. Now for the first time I really felt it, in my guts. Permaculture might not be 'the answer' - there's no such thing - but it taught me to see the fundamental logic of our place in the natural order.

More than this, perhaps it might allow me the audacity of hope for a reconciliation between humanity and the world we're currently beating the crap out of. Perhaps environmentalism does not equal atavism. Perhaps MMRF hints at a way forward, rather than a retreat, as the interns check their emails under locally grown bananas: the Apple Mac sitting with the permaculture pineapple.

I don't know yet, but I firmly believe that Bill Mollison was right in 1988 when he wrote that "in the near future we will see the end of wasted energy or the end of civilization as we know it". I just hope that, over two decades later, another of his assertions still holds true: "What we have done, we can undo."

Photos by Albert Bates, A. Goodheart Brown, Colin Dehond, Michael and Jon Buick.

We are offering the course at Maya Mountain again next March, and in the meantime, we will be a participating instructor in three full Permaculture Design Courses that are still open for enrollment. The first is part of our Transition Town effort for our county seat in Tennessee — the whole 72-hour curriculum on Saturdays through the summer from June 13 to August 29, that is mostly intended for local residents, although others are welcome to come and spend the summer. The second is in County Limerick, Ireland, as part of creating Transition Cloughjordon and The Village, from August 24 to September 5, and will have a go at transitioning First World lifestyles to something more closely approximating sustainability. The third is in Puerto Morelos, Mexico in November, and will be applying the principles discussed in Belize to urbanized living in what used to be rural Mexico.

Contact us for additional information, or click through to the Ecovillage Training Center website.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Unknown Knowns

"There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know."
— Donald Rumsfeld, Press Conference on the situation in Afghanistan, February, 2002

There are also the unknown knowns, or rather those things known to some but not to others, including those who most may need to know. The possibility cannot be excluded that such unknown knowns apply to the Mexican flu.

We picked up a copy of the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal while passing through the desolate, echoing canyons of Nashville’s international departure lounge at mid-day on Saturday and felt a sudden urge to scream. A two-hour flight and the in-flight wifi system on Delta/Northwest offered a better alternative.

What prodded us to write, at 30,000 feet over Mississippi, en route to Mexico, were the fascinating connections between the four seemingly different stories on the Weekend Journal’s page A2. We started drawing arrows on the page with our pen. Top left was a story under the headline, “Memos’ release upended strategy on past” in which Evan Perez and Jonathan Weisman wander behind the scenes at the White House to parse the intentions of the Obama administration concerning prosecution of war crimes by their predecessors.

The Perez/Weisman story would have it that Obama is adamant in squelching Congressional truth commissions and Justice Dept. special prosecutors while providing full and infuriating disclosure through slow time-release of historical documents and photos. The nuance unreported is that by taking that stance, the White House deflects right wing political heat, including that of Blue Dog Democrats, while stoking the fires of litigation and international prosecutions that will ultimately provide justice for the perpetrators. The President also gets to watch his political opponents slowly twist in the wind, hoisted by their own “maintain the cover-up for the sake of the country” petard. In a nation addicted to breaking-scandal news cycles, that Blue Dog just won’t hunt.

Top right was a story under the headline “U.S. releasing Iraq, Afghan prison photos” although the actual release is still a month away. The release of part of the Pentagon’s trove of abuse photos was ordered by a federal court as part of a case brought by civil libertarians in 2003, pre-Abu Gharib. The decision to let them go public now is part of that fire-stoking thang.

Of course, what we, the scandal addicted, would really like to see is the secret photos that circulated betwixt congressional oversight committees in 2006, showing sexually-explicit abuses of women Abu-Gharib prisoners. Those may never see the light of day, any more than the abuse of children pictures or the CIA’s torture videos. Perhaps they can be viewed through plexiglass frames in a George W. Bush museum in Crawford, Texas, some day, something akin to the Dracula museum in Transylvania.

Lower left A2 was the headline, “Scientists fear people can spread new virus,” over a story reporting the World Health Organization’s concern that A/H1N1 flu represents “a cross of swine, avian and human viruses in a way that hasn’t been seen before” and a warning that it could augur a global pandemic similar to 1918, if not stopped.

Lower right was the continuation of front-page-above-the-fold: “Mexico races to stop deadly flu outbreak.” At press time, the Mexico City outbreak of H1N1 had infected 854 people, of whom 59 died within the preceding 48 hours. H1N1 was already showing up in central Mexican states, Texas and California, and the CDC’s acting director was saying containment was no longer an option. These numbers and locations have since increased, and rumors emanating from workers in Mexico’s hospitals say as many as 1000 fatalities occurred in a single hospital. People are fleeing the city, which has now closed schools, public buildings and places of entertainment. The official number in Mexico at this writing is about about 2000 cases and about 150 people have died.

What ties these four stories together? Donald Rumsfeld.

Rummy was the Stan Laurel to Dick Cheney’s Oliver Hardy in the Ford, Reagan and Bush Administrations, and not only knows where the skeletons are buried, probably did much of the spadework.

Like Forrest Gump, Rummy is an apex of historical confluence, whether bringing a pair of golden cowboy spurs to Saddam Hussein, selling nuclear reactors to North Korea, or reassuring us that weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq eventually. Whether Rumsfeld had a role in slipping superthermite girder paint past Marvin Bush at the World Trade Center, secreting nano-tefloned GMO anthrax from a national weapons lab and mopping up witnesses, or downing a light plane that carried Paul Wellstone and his staff, we may never know. Those are known unknowns.

A possible unknown known would be why the H1N1 outbreak came in Mexico City, which, coincidentally (?) was the location where an exposé, in Spanish, of the Rumsfeld Pentagon's secret program to create a bioengineered flu pandemic was published a month before the first case appeared.

Rumsfeld and Giulian at Ground Zero 9-11

As a former chairman and major stockholder of Gilead Sciences, Rummy stands to gain financially from sales of Tamiflu, which, by sheer coincidence, is one of only two anti-viral drugs that H1N1 appears to not tolerate, very odd for a pill genetically designed for avian flu, not swine flu. One might not unreasonably inquire whether the Former Defense Secretary might be building a war chest for his coming legal fees, once the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence starts releasing its findings to The Hague. Perhaps Rumsfeld hopes to stay out of prison long enough to enjoy his huge new fortune, but Tick Tock, old man.

Oh, and Carl Levin, Diane Feinstein and Arlen Specter? Those guys should really get some flu shots.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared in Culture Change.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Island of Law’s Souls

"What is the law?"

Browsing the torture authorization memos released last week, and also getting confirmation that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice-Tenet-Ashcroft-Gonzales-Addington-Bybee-Yoo-Bradbury-Feith-Chertoff-Rizzo-Muller-Hadley-Libby-Holder&your-name-goes-here tortured women and children, such as waterboarding Khaled Sheikh Mohammed 6 times daily for a month, forcing prisoners to stand up for 11 days, or forcing them to line up and masterbate for hours in front of female National Guard troops, or crushing young boys’ testicles, which really shouldn’t be that surprising, because it is just a continuation of the pathology that began when little George would stuff a firecracker up the rectum of a frog, light it and hang around for fun part. Which itself is just the Republican version of throwing a silver dollar across the Delaware, or chopping down the cherry tree, right? If you can paint Reagan as a cowboy hero you can do anything. But Reagan was just into old movies. Dick and George were into racier fare. Now that the CIA cleaned out their hot video collection — the boxed set — you have to go to Crawford, Texas or Jackson Hole to get the screaming in full surround.

Spoke President Barack Obama on April 16, 2009:
In releasing these memos, it is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice that they will not be subject to prosecution…. The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals.
Okay, then, so what laws is the United States required to follow?

Geneva Conventions
Article 7. The official position of defendants, whether as Heads of State or responsible officials in Government Departments, shall not be considered as freeing them from responsibility or mitigating punishment.

Article 8. The fact that the Defendant acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior shall not free him from responsibility, but may be considered in mitigation of punishment if the Tribunal determines that justice so requires.
UN General Assembly Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984, ratified by the US Senate, placing it on a legal par with a federal criminal statute):
Article 2: countries under the Convention are obliged to “take effective legislative, administrative, judicial and other measures to prevent acts of torture.”

Articles 5 through 7: it is a well-established principle of state-conditioned universal jurisdiction that a state party to the Convention is obliged to either institute criminal proceedings against the torturer or to extradite the person to another state to stand trial there. The principles of jurisdiction based on nationality or territoriality do not constrain these precepts.

Article 7(1) imposes upon every state that is a party to this Convention a solemn duty to extradite anyone found in its jurisdiction whom is alleged to have committed torture or to “submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution.”

Article 12 requires the parties to the Convention to “promptly and impartially” investigate allegations of torture. Moreover, the state must investigate the prospect of torture practices within its jurisdiction if “there [are] reasonable grounds to believe that an act of torture has been committed.”

The prosecution of Donald Rumsfeld in Germany was halted by a judge who said that jurisdiction lay in the first instance with the United States, and absent any indication that the United States would not prosecute, the case was suspended. The German court is now being petitioned by international human rights organizations to re-open that case.

In Spain, the judge who prosecuted Augusto Pinochet this past week defied the Spanish political leadership and kept alive an investigation into whether Jay Bybee, Alberto Gonzales and other Cheney flaks broke international law when they crafted the illegal interrogation guidelines. High officials are far from exempt, and if you offer a particularly weak link — Gonzales, say — a lenient plea, who knows where it might lead? Defense from these prosecutions are now the rear-guard action Leon Panetta, Dick Armey, Eric Holder and others are frantically entrenching for.

Unfortunately for them, Congress passed the Joint Resolution Regarding Opposition of the United States to the Practice of Torture by Foreign Governments in 1984. That law requires the United States to work with other governments and international NGOs to combat the practice of torture worldwide. It would include CIA surrogate torture cells at black sites in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Poland, Syria or elsewhere.

The prima facie documented evidence released this year shows that the ex-President and his Cabinet were directly involved in patently illegal activities, including torture and war crimes.

For the Obama administration to meaningfully reassert the rule of law in the United States, a full investigation and prosecution is required, however — and this is where it gets interesting — it is not necessary for the US to do it. It just can’t obstruct. Our judges have to extradite the defendants, regardless of who they are, to countries which do prosecute. That is what happened to Pinochet. It may be happening again now.

Personally, given the economic mess we are in, I suspect that show trials of historic significance (a la Nuremberg, the Nixon and Clinton impeachments and the O.J. trial) would provide an amusing divertissement that could rescue newspapers, take the spotlight off the Treasury bailout debacle, and maybe even pry a school-and-TV-dulled populace away from American Idol. If they can link in frequent trial updates with dramatic plot twists such as Diebold-rigged presidential elections, energetic-nanocomposite girder insulation, nanocomposite-weaponized anthrax, the mysterious death of Paul Wellstone, and White House death squads operating within the US and abroad, (no tinfoil hats in any of that, these are all matters of public record now), I might even go out and get a new TV myself. That’s entertainment!
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to eat meat, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to go on all fours, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?
Dr. Moreau: What is the law?
Sayer of the Law: Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?
Beasts (in unison): Are we not men?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Choices and Voices

"That is considered wisdom, which,
describes the scratch and not the itch."
— Kenneth Boulding

We have been contemplating the direction this blog has taken and whether some kind of shift back to where we began might be in order. Maybe, we wondered, we should bifurcate the word-stream into two tributaries; one political, one practical. Maybe even three tributaries, to account for those wider, weirder occasional stretches of our imagination.

That led to trying to mentally verbalize what the role of this blog is, and in doing that we traversed some interesting territory.

A blog is short for weblog, the itinerary of a surfing safari: locales visited, the waves found there, rocks, shoals and crowds of co-kooks to be aware of, and then some in-gathering synthesis of the overall experience, punctuated with the rare revealed wisdom. Blogs adhering to this tradition are peppered with URLs and recursive notes to earlier safaris.

Blogs have morphed in recent years, slouching in the direction of link-less op-eds, and that trend is growing, not receding, as wood-based newspapers pack-up their greasy old chainsaws in favor of shiny gigawatt server farms (pardon our coal ash, nuclear waste, and salmon kill, nothing but paperless electrons here). At this blog, our electrons began as photons captured in a silicon amber agitating a nearby silver thread enough to disgorge a current of loose particles that moved up a wire to this MacBook our fingers now pound.

“Op-ed,” by the way, meant “opposite the editorial page” in a newspaper. The editorial page was devoted to the paid employees or owners of the publication, and the facing page was for the syndicated columnists and the unpaid opinions of more ordinary people. That blogs are now the dominant news-form speaks volumes of the paucity of wisdom emanating from the inbred journalistic caste. Our Sulzbergers, Ochs, Berliscones and Murdochs have simply lost credibility.

While we have frequently ventured into pristine unsupported opinion here, more often we have tried to leave behind breadcrumbs of web references so that our trail can be retraced by anyone. This is a good practice, and we will probably continue doing that, even if sometimes birds eat the crumbs.

Whether to have this space revert to something resembling an extended Post-Petroleum Survival Guide reference appendix in real time or to follow our Muse into Obamanomics, international torture trials, energetic nanocomposites of superthermite, or other fun subjects is really a false choice. It is all connected. We can’t just look forward, as the Magic President would have it, we need to also look backward and trace the mysterious, winding route that brought us here. Why? Because we may need to retrace that route to find the way out when the room suddenly fills with acrid smoke.

We may need to retrace along legal lines in order to restore the path of justice. Without justice there is no peace. Without peace there is no civil order, or even civil conversation.

We may need to retrace the origins of classical economics, predicated on limitless expansion and resource extraction to learn what limit-bound steady state economics are all about.

We may need to retrace our scientific inquiry and ethical lines in order to avoid geno-nano doom, lest the Singularity be not wafting space fogs but a uniform bubbling grey goo covering our hot rock from shore to shore as it circles our star without us, perhaps waiting for that distant day when the microbes we seeded to Mars return as cosmonauts in search of the oily black line in Earth’s strata we call the Anthropocene.

We may need to retrace 10,000 years back to the development of plowed earth in order to reclaim a proper carbon balanced agriculture/silvaculture/aquaculture, in order to fend off a future otherwise filled with clathrate fireballs and/or the pervasive rotten egg smell sniffed by dinosaurs after the Chicxulub asteroid impact, a particularly odious way to go.

And when we go back that 10,000 years, we may discover that our ancestors took some other wrong turns along the way, and that was really when they left the garden and went into exile, and perhaps, by a process of exploration and rediscovery, we will experience not only our salvation from converging existential catastrophes, but an orders-of-magnitude improvement in our daily lives -- and the way back to the garden.

That, right there, was our punctuation point.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Earthquakes and Icebergs

We tend to look at earthquakes with surprise and fear, rather than as something with a moral dimension. We assign blame to the victims for living too close to an active fault, or to buildings too unsteady, or to fate. We don’t read headlines about the real cause of large earthquake fatalities, which is our population. Somehow prescriptions for that are left lying on the counter while days are spent re-living familiar discussions of building codes and rescue efforts.

With snow falling today back in Tennessee, we are reading about the end of this year’s Antarctic summer.

Satellite imagery from ESA tells the tale -- a final tendril of ice where the main Wilkins ice shelf grips Charcot Island shrinks and shrinks, and then in a death-embracing fingertip farewell, slides away into the deep.

Here, 11 years ago, was Mercer's prediction, in Nature 271:321-325 (1978):
“One warning sign that a dangerous warming is beginning in Antarctica, will be a breakup of ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula just south of the recent January 0°C isotherm; the ice shelf in the Prince Gustav Channel on the east side of the peninsula, and the Wordie Ice Shelf; the ice shelf in George VI Sound, and the ice shelf in Wilkins Sound on the west side.”
As other commenters have now observed, Wilkins was the last one mentioned. The rest are already departed.

Last month ocean scientists doubled their estimates for global sea level rise by 2100. Places in Northern hemisphere like New York, Amsterdam and London will be particularly hard hit due to uneven distribution of rising waters by currents, while places like Miami, Houston and Havana may have more time to prepare.

Shortly after this report, President Obama told an audience gathered at Prague:
"To protect our planet, now is the time to change the way that we use energy. Together we must confront climate change by ending the world's dependency on fossil fuels by tapping the power from the sources of energy like the wind and the sun and calling upon all nations to do their part. And I pledge to you that in this global effort the US is now ready to lead."
What the President was silent about was the population earthquake, although its foreshocks are warning us now, if we pause to listen.




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