Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Durban Dollars: TckTckTck Money

A century from now social analysts will look back with angry astonishment at the extent our generation accepted the economists’ fantasy — happiness requires perpetual economic growth. This may have been true once; definitely now it is false.”
— Dennis Meadows, preface to Creating Wealth: Growing Local Economies with Local Currencies

In the classic novel, Ishmael, Daniel Quinn opined, through a telepathic ape in the title role, that our descent from paradise began when they locked up the food. This week finds us back in the Yucatec Mayan world, where Ishmael’s premise seems self-evident. Food has not yet been locked up, nor, by and large, is it stored. People live simply, quite by intention. They do not preserve, neither do they hoard. Three to five generations live together in compounds of thatched houses with dirt floors. Their roofs last 5 to 10 years, depending on tropical storm intensity in those years. The softwood walls last perhaps 20, and if there are doors and windows, they are typically from tropical hardwoods, maybe centuries old already, and will be reused whenever the rest of the building is renewed.

Most families have neither refrigerators nor root cellars. A ham or a rack of fish may hang, slowly smoking, in the rafters, but that day’s chicken or turkey is pecking the ground just outside, next month’s pig is rooting in a nearby mud wallow, and some chocolate is in the cacao nib stage, drying on some pieces of tin in the sun, probably next to some corn that will become masa flour. Less than an hour’s time spent in the forest or on the river yields a rich meal for the whole family for that day. When evening falls, they will climb into their hammocks and sleep while the smoke from the fire keeps mosquitoes at bay.

This is a non-monetary economy. Fractional reserve banking, currency exchanges and debt are alien concepts. Of course in today’s world those things are not entirely avoidable. Mayan family men might earn something taking tourists into the bromeliad corchal in a canoe, mother will weave baskets to sell in the market, and the children will help carry her corn and woven jewelry to trade for some cooking oil, salt, and other supplies. They will be paid in government money, and that they may store and hoard, although seldom more than a month’s worth. Granted, this affords them the opportunity to buy televisions, cars, and home appliances, but they have rejected that path, observing that it leads to a world they would not want for their children.
In Creating Wealth: Growing Local Economies with Local Currencies (New Society Publishers 2011), Gwendolyn Hallsmith and Bernard Lietaer point out that it was not very long ago that most of the world operated this way. The example they use is the !Kung people of Botswana, made famous by their depiction in The Gods Must Be Crazy! In their example, !Kung society gave way to the lure of consumerism, modifying ancient social practices to the modern monetary exchange system. The !Kung went from a sharing people to a hoarding people.

Choices made by any society enable members to attain well-being or to be cast into misery. The choice is always that of an individual, but the social norms and guiding philosophy can conduce towards one result or the other.

For the rural Maya, the community being considered was not merely a single group of humans denoted by geography and culture, but rather the ecological community of all life forms, and generations still to come. What sane economic system would even consider forgetting these, a Mayan might ask. An economist might call what the Mayans are acquiring social, cultural, and ecological capital. To these people, and many others in the intentionally pre-industrial world, they are just good sense.

At the recent Local Future conference in Michigan, Australian economist Steve Keen was asked by the audience, “What should individuals be doing with their savings to build local resilience?” Keen began by giving similar advice to another panelist, Nicole Foss, namely, hold cash, use opportunities to buy distressed assets, and worry more about deflation — “debt deleveraging” — than inflation. He then went on to say that while that might be the best strategy for individuals, it was totally counterproductive for communities, which should be investing in innovation and local green businesses with an eye towards a future of changed circumstances. Individuals taking their money out of circulation and hoarding cash makes a bad situation worse for the greater community. To square those two opposing views, he suggested local currencies.

Jubilee and Currency Change

Steve Keen told the assembly, “When local currency is formed, what you’ve then got is a form of circulation that can supplant the collapse in the credit-based system.”
“At an overall social level, you are in a debt crisis caused by the finance sector convincing you that being in debt is a good thing. It isn’t really individual fault in taking on too much debt, it’s the finance sector convincing us that debt’s a good idea. Economic theory played a huge role in that. So, I’d see two things as being very useful to do at a social level. One is to organize a modern jubilee, abolishing the debt. [The other, not discussed here, is to Occupy Economics Departments – Ed.].
“There are two ways to go about abolishing debt. One is to actually write it off and say 80% shouldn’t have been lent, we’re writing off 80% of the debt and force the banks to a restructuring and reorganization. It would be quite a bloody process.

“The other is … to give everyone a million dollars, or a large amount of money, and say, ‘If you are in debt, you have to pay your debt down using this million. If you’re not in debt you can hang onto it.’ … Now what that would mean is the banks don’t lose any assets because what goes down in loans goes up in their reserves, so the banks’ solvency wouldn’t necessarily be destroyed. What would happen is their liquidity would drop drastically because they rely on large amounts of debt to get their revenue. So if you suddenly give them money instead of debt, their cash flows will decline dramatically.
“The old way of doing a jubilee used to be behead the money lender and free the slaves. We can’t quite do that any more, as tempting as it might be… Economists really caused this crisis.”
[This whole talk is available online in episode 284 of the C-realm podcast ]

Replacing Debt-based Money

Hallsmith and Lietaer say, “We don’t really need money. We need the things that money can buy. We don’t need financial capital for its own sake if we can obtain the things it buys. The exchange capacity of money is now, and hopefully in the future, one of the key reasons we need it. Money helps us exchange things that are of value to us—like our time and labor —for things that are of value to someone else.”

The problem that both Keen and Hallsmith/Lietaer put their fingers on is that debt-based money has only very marginal utility — for building hydroelectric dams, photovoltaic cell factories, or some other very large, long-term project, for instance. When debt becomes the medium of exchange, however, it takes on a life of its own and infuses every aspect of our lives. It becomes a monster — a juggernaut of cruel mathematics. 

Money is, after all, only a means, not an end. Once we endow it with special characteristics, such as the power over your child’s life or death at the entrance to the hospital’s Emergency Room, what you have to have to pay taxes or tuition, or all that stands between you and your next meal, it becomes something far more sinister. When you add in the necessity for growth to offset the arithmetic of debt service, and you tie national currencies to the interest-and-inflation bandwagon and everyone who handles money finds themselves owing their soul to the company store. Whole nations — Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Iceland to take the most recent examples — find themselves enslaved to debts as ridiculous and unforgiving as subprime mortgages or student loans.

Durban Dollars

Right now, it is illegal in the United States for any individual, group or government to issue any currency that would compete with Federal Reserve notes. So-called “complimentary currencies,” the community money systems invented by Lietaer decades ago, are forced to fly under the radar by disguising themselves to look like something other than currency: PayPal; airline frequent flyer miles; discount coupons; Time Banks; Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS); and similar non-threatening exchange media.

The easiest way for the Federal (and/or State) government to force people out of these systems or otherwise maintain its lock on the food has been to require taxes to be paid in dollars. But therein lies a great opening for the change we all want to see.

What if taxes were required to be paid in, say, carbon credits, not dollars?

Well, the first thing that would happen is that people and institutions (airlines, manufacturers, mine-operators, garbage collectors, hospitals) would have to scramble around in search of carbon credits to meet their tax obligations. Those who could not acquire them by reducing actual emissions would have to purchase the surplus emission reductions of others on a carbon exchange. The value of credits would likely appreciate, considerably. It would quickly become much easier to find additional reductions than to have to purchase credits.

Not to be too severe or to price carbon credits out of the reach of most, the program could be phased in, say by 10 percent per year for 10 years. Bank accounts could be allowed to store carbon credits and to electronically pay them to the government each quarter, which would turn around and issue more, awarding them to anyone who can demonstrate greenhouse gas reductions. Tree planting or other land use changes that sequester carbon — organic no-till, holistic management, biochar, etc. — could also qualify to receive fresh government issue.

Hallsmith and Lietaer, while not going quite this far, propose backing national currencies with voluntary carbon reductions. They are sort of like Obama in Copenhagen, except taking another step. In their plan, consumers could make purchases from participating green businesses and receive electronic credits for anything that contributes to verifiable carbon drops. They can either keep their credits (for later tax payment purchases, or as an investment) or sell their credits to the carbon market and pocket the profit. Participating businesses that sell carbon-reducing goods or services gather the necessary data — the amount of carbon reduction achieved with each purchase— to be stored in a national data bank.

“For example, a consumer could earn a CCU when they take a bus to work in the morning instead of driving their car. They would pay for the trip in dollars, and would swipe their CCU debit card for the carbon currency credit. The transit company would have a standard carbon value for bus riders.”

Whatever the variation, the common elements are these: retire fractional reserve (debt based) Federal currency; open the floodgates to local currencies in all their shades and colors; require taxes to be paid in that which we most wish to encourage; and reconsider what constitutes real wealth. Is it what you see advertised in the corporate media, or is it what most rural Maya just call good sense?


Monday, November 28, 2011

Come to Belize

Travel far south; to the back of beyond; to a remote
valley accessible only by dugout canoe.  Study
permaculture surrounded by a lush, productive
forest of edibles, medicinals and tropical
hardwoods.  Eat organic food, sleep in dorms
powered by renewable energy, bathe in a sparkling
pure river....

in 2012, in the heart of the Mayan world, where the Crystal Skull was found...

Permaculture Design Certificate Course
Instructors: Albert Bates, Andrew Leslie Phillips, Cliff Davis, Chris Nesbitt and special guests
Dates Feb 20 to Mar 2, 2012
Place: Maya Mountain Research Farm
San Pedro Columbia, Belize

For Details, or to register, please contact Christopher.

Ven a Belice...

20 Febrero de 2 Marzo 2012
Curso de Diseño en Permacultura
Montaña Maya Research Farm

Our certificate course (USD $1250), with an all-star cast, tracks the standard 72 hour curriculum, and is followed by an Advanced Design Course in eco-agriculture with Jono Neiger and Eric Toensmeier March 4-10 for an additional USD $700. The venue is one of Central America's oldest permaculture farms, a lush tropical food forest. Our solar-powered dormitories and campsites limit admission to the first 40 applicants. Please register early to assure a place.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Thanksgiving Prayer

“In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias) is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions, leading to statistical errors. Confirmation bias is a type of cognitive bias and represents an error of inductive inference toward confirmation of the hypothesis under study. Confirmation bias is a phenomenon wherein decision makers have been shown to actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis, and ignore or underweigh evidence that could disconfirm their hypothesis.”
— Science Daily

At Thanksgiving in the USA everyone gets a few days vacation from work to celebrate the colonial beachhead from Europe on the North American continent, landing at Plymouth, and the near-starvation and loss of the entire first colony, but for their rescue by generous albeit naive natives.
The tale is seldom continued in its telling that the colonists afterwards conspired to slaughter the natives and steal their lands, or that what had been revealed to them as a land of plenty, seemingly empty and naturally bounteous, was in actuality a meticulously cultivated ecosystem with human inhabitants, nutrient cycles and carrying capacity in delicate balance.
In addition to exterminating the natives, the Pilgrims and their successors hunted to extinction the Heath Hen, Eastern Elk, Sea Mink, Passenger Pigeon, and Carolina Parakeet. The American bison, now only a DNA remnant in a popular cattle breed, suffered a range reduction that makes it effectively extinct. 

We don’t tell ourselves these stories, choosing instead a more heroic myth of rugged individualists breaking free of tyranny, overcoming adversity, and taming a savage land. It plays well with children, especially young boys.

Original Buffalo Range

Harvested Buffalo Skulls

Current Remnant Herds

Albert Bates and KMO on the road.
Not shown: the lovely Olga K.
Back from a long road trip up the BosWash Corridor, to the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO-USA); the Keystone XL Pipeline ring-around-the-White-House; Occupy DC; Occupy Wall Street; and then west by northwest to the Local Future International Conference on Sustainability, Transition and Culture Change in Michigan, we are imbued with a sense of the public sentiment at this historic Thanksgiving. Ours was not a scientific expedition. We gathered very little new information. All told, we merely confirmed our extant hypotheses.

Or did we?
KMO and Albert Bates, ASPO book table
The ASPO meeting was a star-studded affair: William Catton, author of Overshoot; Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over, Peak Everything, and End of Growth; Wes Jackson of The Land Institute; Chris Martenson, creator of The Crash Course; financial analysts Charles Maxwell, Andy Buckingham and Jeff Rubin; energy predictors David Murphy, Robert Hirsch and Roger Bedzek; oil-patch experts Chris Skrebowski, Kjell Aleklett, Arthur Berman, and Jean Laherrère; and popular collapsenik writers and bloggers Nicole (Stoneleigh) Foss, Sharon Astyk, Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, Kurt Cobb, Gail Tverberg, Tom Whipple, Aaron Newton and Guy Dauncey. 

Oil Addiction slide by Wes Jackson
ASPO’s Beltway audience was even more interesting — former TVA Chairman S. David Freeman, Limits to Growth author Dennis Meadows, EROIE creator Charles A.S. Hall, Songs of Petroleum author Jan Lundberg, and congressional committee investigator John Darnell. The gab in the corridors and over meals was almost as interesting as what went on in the main hall.

With all this brainpower one might expect new flashes of insight to beam like a mirrored ball in the grasp of colored spotlights. Actually, the 7th Annual Meeting was little improved from the 6th, or 5th, or any of the others of its ilk — ASPO International, Petrocollapse, or, for that matter, Local Future in Michigan. Rapid collapse, and soon, seems to have more adherents now than gradual collapse, some unspecified distance out. What we found ourselves rotating around was our own confirmatory bias.

Granted, there were bits and pieces we had not known before. Who knew before the after-dinner presentations by Anthony Ingraffea, Rob Jackson, Robert Howarth, and Amy Mall that natural gas, the new darling of America’s Energy Independence and lately subject of much hyped-up advertising by oil companies, is currently responsible for 44 percent of US greenhouse impact? Factoring in the 20:1 advantage of methane over carbon dioxide as a heat-stroking molecule, fracking shale gas already contributes about 11 percent — 677 Tg CO2-equivalent, according to EPA — of the climate chaos we are endowing to future generations, and is growing far faster than coal.

Who knew?

Who knew that while petroleum may have spared the sperm whale for a century, the climate change it brought may have doomed not just marine mammals but all ocean life? 

Keystone Protests Ring the White House
Or that increasing technological efficiency brings more energy use, not less? Energy efficiency now allows every man, woman and child in the United States to use 100 times more energy than is required to live happily. Indeed, as Herman Daly is fond of reminding us, once we pass a threshold of sufficiency, each ounce of added wealth diminishes our happiness and well-being.

Or that 4.5 billion of Earth’s present human inhabitants owe their food supply, antibiotics and prescriptions — their longevity and fecundity — nearly entirely to petrochemical processes that are about to become unavailable at an affordable price? 

Secret Service Eye-View of Protesters
Or that governments and international agencies have treasonously conspired for half a century to obscure and conceal vital facts that would allow populations and markets to prepare for a very different future, one based on daily solar income, rather than an overdrawn savings account of ancient sunlight? 

Well, actually we have, here and in our books, articles, lectures and interviews. For 40 years, more or less. Sorry to nag.

So why don’t more people seek shelter from the coming storm? Why don’t election year debates get real? Two reasons: confirmation bias and normalcy bias. 

Jan Lundberg at Zucotti Park library,
shortly before it was destroyed by NYPD
In the case of the former, we sentient bipeds with tripartite brains actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms our views of the world — views we mostly formed as children as we “aped” our parents and teachers or our inspiring leaders and celebrities. Our fondness towards normalcy lets us box out things that make us feel uncomfortable and allows us to focus on ways to blend into the crowd. If the crowd thinks peak oil, climate change, JFK’s assassination or the inside job at the World Trade Center are just weird conspiracy theories by crazies at the fringe of our society, we ape the crowd. That’s just Sapiens’ Social Software.

“Paranoia? Of course not. It’s alternative scholarship. What’s wrong with teaching alternative theories in our schools? What are liberals so afraid of? … Why this dictatorial approach to learning anyway? What gives teachers the right to say what things are? Who’s to say that flat-earthers are wrong? Or that the Church was wrong to silence Galileo, with his absurd theory (actually written by his proctologist) that the earth moves around the sun. Citing ‘evidence’ is so snobbish and élitist. I think we all know what lawyers can do with evidence.”
— Eric Idle, Who Wrote Shakespeare


In Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma, (New York: Springer, 2012) Joseph Tainter and Tad Patzek describe the lifestyle of a wealthy family in ancient Rome. Work, such as it was, ended by mid-day and afternoons were spent at the baths, evenings in social banquets. The diet was well-balanced, children well-educated, and all of it was accomplished with about 6 slaves per family. The Tawantinsuyu (Inca) were even more efficient, their whole pre-Columbian society spending about 65 days per year to meet basic needs. Slavery, while not unknown in the Andes, played a much smaller — principally military — role. 

Occupy DC
Our “norm” now is to use 400 energy slaves per USAnian family, or 200 in Europe and 40 in China. Moreover, those slaves are actually much more reliable than human slaves ever were. They work 24/7, never get sick, don’t get married and have children or entanglements, and require almost no space for housing. Right now they cost much less to acquire and maintain than human slaves ever did. 

So, if the Tawantinsuyu could get by with almost no domestic slaves, the Romans with only a handful per wealthy family, how is it that we need 36 billion of them in the United States to take our kids to soccer practice and pop popcorn? Tainter and Patzek say it in a single word: complexity.

We have become inured to complexity. Today we can barely fathom getting around in a strange city without a smart phone. We think nothing of flying a thousand miles for a business meeting or a week at the beach. This energy-enslaved world is our insular cocoon, the norm that we have been socialized into, and with confirmatory bias and normalcy bias we defend it from any “abnormal” opinion that it is immoral, wrongheaded, or doomed. Like an advertisement for cigarettes or one-ton automobiles, we do not imagine our slaves could make us unhappy or unhealthy. Quite the opposite. We confer on our outsized, outmoded, profligate lifestyle an absolute, inviolate authoritativeness. “The American way of life,” George H.W. Bush whorishly opined, “is not up for negotiation.” The War on Terror, Donald Rumsfeld told us, is to persuade the world that Americans must be allowed to continue their way of life.

This is the reflex that keeps the majority of us frozen in the headlights as collapse rushes at us from all sides — militarily, environmentally, financially, and socially. We are Romans with the barbarians at the gates — we just keep sending our slaves out to pick more fruit and bring us wine.

Protesters Return to Zuccotti Park
Those of us who read the tea leaves and deduce the inevitable are better prepared, but even collapseniks are trapped in confirmatory bias — subscribing to RSS feeds or podcasts from favored web news sources; reading the latest books from Lundberg, Heinberg, Kunstler, Astyk and Orlov; or attending conferences like ASPO and Local Future. If the crash and plunge that was predicted for 2006 did not appear, maybe it will have arrived by 2010. If not then, then perhaps 2012, or 2015. We are waiting for Godot, are we not? Ah, but the conversation is good.

Let us stop looking for confirmation of our views or trying to conform to “normal,” whatever that is. This Thanksgiving let us give thanks that what we have been bequeathed by generations before us — less the avaricious colonists than the generous natives, less the hybrid buffalo than the ecology of the forest, less our myths than the hard realities — have brought us benefit beyond measure. Let us resolve to squander it no more. Gaia grant us clear eyes and ears to see through the fog of our own self-deceptions.

On this day let us resolve not just to thank the natives but to free our slaves. Addiction to slavery is the same as any other addiction. First it feels good, then it destroys you. Just ask a wealthy Roman.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and FDR’s Four Freedoms

At the beginning of November, when it was getting colder, we had the opportunity to visit Zucotti Park and sit in with the Occupy Wall Street crowds. We had been concerned that colder weather might dampen spirits but those fears proved unfounded, and our patriots’ spirits now are much higher than at Valley Forge.

Our citizens have learned a great deal about democracy in 235 years, and it shows. One of the chants taken up as they march on Bank of America, City Hall, a reception for Henry Kissinger, or wherever they might be going that day, is “What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like!”

The loose agglomeration that meets in daily General Assembly (GA) is really good at framing and hardly needed advice from George Lakoff, although he was thoughtful enough to provide some. Don’t make specific demands, he said, be a moral focus. Be patriotic. Be the public, standing up. Be citizens. Make it about rights, not privilege. He didn’t need to give that advice, but it was good to put it out there. These people at the GA already have it in their DNA.

The difference between this group and the framers meeting in Continental Congress is more than the two centuries of experience gained and prophesies fulfilled (Washington, Jefferson, Madison and others expressly warned of political parties and bankers). It is also a difference in method. The colonists, intoxicated with the idea of popular democracy but sobered by a fear of power usurpers, were stuck with Robert’s Rules of Order.

The GA, and the break-out groups that meet in the Atrium at 60 Wall Street are blessed with the Quaker tools now refined by waves of protest movements: the Suffragettes, Satyagraha, Lunch Counter Sit-Ins, No-nukes Affinity Groups, and Battle in Seattle. What doesn’t work? Violence. Power Trips. Hierarchies. What works? Good facilitation, timekeeping, note-taking, hand-signs, open agenda, global café, conflict transformation, consensus. What came out of the conventions at the turn of the 18th to 19th Century was protection of slavery, disenfranchisement of women, ethnic cleansing of Native Americans and the preservation of an elite ruling class, especially the banksters. What will emerge from this process may also be flawed when seen in hindsight centuries hence, but it will be progressively less so.

At the Atrium sessions, weeks and months of meeting on Vision and Goals, sometimes with the same people, or sometimes with nearly all new people, had so far only gotten as far as a draft preliminary vision statement. Two versions were offered at the meeting we attended with about a dozen people, including an elderly bearded rabbi and a First Nations pipe-bearer from Canada. The first was a single page that had already been read aloud in the GA, the other a much longer document that gathered in many more threads that had been woven together in the breakout group. In this meeting, 10 minutes was allocated to the former and 30 to the latter. Those who had taken on responsibility for a redraft would listen to the voices of this group on this night and take that back to revise the next draft for the next night. Only when the document fully expressed the wishes of the whole ad hoc committee, by consensus, would it be returned to the GA for re-reading and offered for consensus there.

These committee meetings allow themselves only about 2 hours per day, so the agenda had to be condensed and consensed quickly at the start of each session. New offers to present, in writing or verbally, were received and voted upon. Six final choices were narrowed to 3 agenda items with pre-assigned duration times. In this way the meetings went smoothly, and people remained fresh and eager to meet again the next day. Democracy is not quick. There is a learning curve for many activists who have conceived such polities but never had to practice them. It may take a while to come to appreciate the skills of “unelected” facilitators and the liberty of time.

Where did the Atrium space come from, one might ask. The Atrium is public space that was guaranteed by the real estate developer to be open for public use, in exchange for New York City raising their height restriction and rental occupancy limits. There are more than 500 such places in New York City, including Zucotti Park, although the 1% Press has been carefully obscuring this point and making the occupation seem like trespass, and the developers have been pressuring the 1% Mayor to evict. Confronted by a court ordering him to allow the protesters to remain in the public spaces they were given by law, the Mayor has relented and provided port-a-potties, food vendor access, and other accommodations to basic needs. Rumor has it he will even be providing some heated tents soon.

From what we saw, the Occupiers in New York are in no hurry, have really good process and facilitation, and their Open Space format allows all ideas to come in and be heard. They have plenty of donations for needed supplies. Of course there are the usual crazies and street people who also occupy the space and the juice, but the Zucotti camp itself is not threatened by cold weather, rain, snow, or disinterest. Their biggest challenge is coping with their own numbers, which are growing every day. They may soon have to add another park, so watch for that.

The longer vision draft document contained a passage worth repeating here.
“The question of freedom must be posed afresh — in its most profound sense — so that it might be retrieved. For in the answer to that question alone resides the secret of the revolution. The cry of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité! still rings through the ages, but it has fallen on deaf ears. Humanity must be awakened from its comatose state, its long ahistorical torpor, so that freedom can at last be realized.

“By ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ is understood at least the following:

Freedom from oppression
Freedom from want
Freedom from fear
Freedom from war (Kant’s ‘perpetual peace;’ faedus pacificum)
Freedom from disease
Freedom from ignorance
Freedom from apathy (the anomie described by Darkheim)
Freedom from boredom (the colorless tedium of daily life, Baudelarian ennui)
Freedom from imposed necessity
Freedom without borders (liberté sans frontiers)"

These ten points draw into focus both the intellectual strength of the Occupy movement and its naiveté. Perhaps the rigor of the process will shave off some of the rough edges before it is complete, but as it stands, the document takes a giant step beyond Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms:
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.” (Address to Congress, January 6, 1941)

Roosevelt’s freedoms, which did not reach for impossible social goals like freedom from boredom (although, in truth, that should be afforded prisoners as a fundamental right), were really bedrock needs. Its amazing to us today how broadly they were accepted in 1941. They were used as set pieces for Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers. After the war, they were incorporated into the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But can you imagine Obama calling for a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor? Or hearing it from any of the Republican candidates for President?

The gap between the Roosevelt four freedoms and the Occupy ten freedoms is one of realities versus perceptions. While it is realistic to ask for societies to so organize themselves that the least of us is protected from hunger and fear, it may not be reasonable to expect that a population of 7 billion can be liberated from ignorance and apathy, or that a free liberal arts college education or high-tech extensions of life for the terminally ill should be guaranteed. We are at peak extraction, peak energy and peak population, and beyond this point lies a Great Change.

In our view, if the Occupy Wall Street GA just got the United States back to championing Roosevelt’s four freedoms, that would be significant.


Thursday, October 20, 2011

What Occupy Wall Street can learn from the Singing Revolution

In lower Manhattan, they have been out there in the street for more than a month and winter is starting to approach. Last night it was 48°F (8°C) and drizzling. Surely it must warm some of those huddled under grimy blankets to hear they have been adopted by the President, the Tea Party, Baby Boomers and Birchers, but whether tepid and self-serving endorsements, or grueling vigils, can sustain their movement a year from now is still anyone’s guess.

Drawing strength from the rage of the masses is not a formula for longevity, especially in a consumer culture, where rage shifts seasonally.

Tom Hayden and Mark Rudd in 2007
 Just ask the veterans of the great uprisings of 1968. We still wonder, what became of our revolution? Rather than being adopted by everyone, it unified the opposition, and while it made some milestones, especially in the popular culture, it missed its political mark by a wide mile. Some of the heroes of the Strawberry Rebellion went on to become politicians and pundits, and while they could lay claim to some modest, incremental gains, the dragon they tilted against grew exponentially more horrific, and now looms over us like a scene from Revelations.

In a recent piece for CounterPunch, Mark Rudd wrote:
While reading I’ve Got the Light of Freedom (Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: the organizing tradition and the Mississippi freedom struggle, University of California Press, 1995), I realized that much of what we had practiced in SDS was derived from SNCC and this developmental organizing tradition, up to and including the vision of “participatory democracy,” which was incorporated in the 1962 SDS founding document, “The Port Huron Statement.” Columbia SDS’s work was patient, strategic, base-building, using both confrontation and education.  I myself had been nurtured and developed into a leadership position through years of close friendship with older organizers.   
However, my clique’s downfall came post-1968, when, under the spell of the illusion of revolution, we abandoned organizing, first for militant confrontation (Weatherman and the Days of Rage, Oct. 1969) and then armed urban guerilla warfare (the Weather Underground, 1970-1976). We had, in effect, moved backwards from organizing to self-expression, believing, ridiculously, that that would build the movement. At the moment when more organizing was needed, in order to build a permanent anti-imperialist mass movement, we abandoned organizing.  
This is the story I tell in my book, Underground. It’s about good organizing (Columbia), leading to worse (Weatherman), leading to horrible (the Weather Underground).  I hope it’s useful to contemporary organizers as they contemplate how to build the coming mass movement(s).
We came across Rudd’s retrospective in the midst of teaching a Permaculture Design Course in Estonia last week and it occurred to us that Rudd’s lessons were well grasped in important — though perhaps least expected — places. An October 13th AP interview with Poland's former President and Nobel laureate, shipyard striker Lech Walesa, touched on some of those lessons learned.  If political communism could be toppled by strategic protest, is capitalism immune? "We need to change, reform the capitalist system," he said, because we need "more justice, more people's interests, and less money for money's sake." Walesa said he supported the Occupy Wall Street movement and intended to join the protesters.

Lech Walesa
Walesa, looking today like a cross between Captain Kangaroo and the Monopoly oligarch, founded the Solidarnosc labor party in 1980, inflicting fatal wounds upon both the Soviet Empire and on communism as a political system. He found himself thrust onto the world stage but was smart and humble enough to recognize that it was the moment, not him personally, that was the pivot point for the brewing revolution.

As we described in our post of May, 2010, White Nights and Chicken Skin, the Estonians seized on Solidarnosc’s momentum in 1991, with The Singing Revolution. As Soviet tanks attempted to roll back Estonian progress towards independence, the Estonian Supreme Soviet together with the Congress of Estonia proclaimed the restoration of the independent state of Estonia and repudiated Soviet anti-freedom legislation. Surrounding the Parliament building in Tallinn, Estonians of all walks, using the social networking tools of the day, spontaneously dropped their activities and converged, linked arms, sang and forced the hardliners out. By serving as human shields to protect radio and TV stations from the Russian tanks, these singing revolutionaries brought Estonia its independence without bloodshed. A counter-coup attempt failed amid mass pro-democracy demonstrations in Moscow.

Teaching permaculture at a newly formed ecovillage outside Tallinn, one cannot help but be struck by how creative and fully engaged Estonian young people are now. In one session we related to them how the Wall Street protesters had circumvented the New York City police ban on loudspeakers to keep an open dialog going between thousands of people engaged in reinventing civilization. Henrick Hertzberg, writing for The New Yorker, described the process:
[T]he General Assembly [is] a daily mass meeting, open to all, which is the closest thing OWES has to a governing body. Because any kind of amplified sound in forbidden, bullhorns included, the meetings are conducted in an ingenious way. A speaker says a few words, then pauses; the audience repeats them, loudly and in unison; the speaker says a few more; the chorus repeats; and so on. If the group is unusually large, the repetitions radiate out, like a mountain echo. The listeners register their reactions silently, with their hands. Four fingers up, palms outward: Yay! Four fingers down, palms inward: Boo! Both hands rolling: Wrap it up! Clench fists crossed at the wrists: No way, José! There is something oddly moving about a crowd of smart-phone-addicted, computer-savvy people coöperating to create such an utterly low-tech, strikingly human, curiously tribal means of amplification—a literal loudspeaker.
Something equally creative happened amongst our hip translators who were struggling to keep up with the unusual words our teaching cadre was using. There is already a term in Estonian for permaculture. It is the onomatopoeia, 'Permakultuur.' That didn’t really cut it for these inventive youth. They came up with a new word that more expressed the essence, instead of the English-sound. It was Jåtkuloomine – literally, evolving nature; continuing creation. The example sentence the translators offered was “The key for the survival of Estonia is creation of the continuous creation.”

Other words they coined to capture deeper meanings:
Toidusalu — food forest; literally, a more beautiful forest. Example: My table is abundant and it is provided for by my food forest, that does not feel hurt by my pruning.

Metsaviljelus – agroforestry; literally: a cultivated forest – holistic forest farming.

Lohmu — swale, but not just a contour ditch. Literally: hollow-bump; empty and fill; scoop and mound. Example: Its cool to pick the strawberries on the hollow-bump and listen to the frogs singing.

Åkk — humanure, literally: “the good stuff;” pure organic. Example: The most convenient way to dig out the åkk is with a pillkopp, but alas! it is missing from the toolkit of continuous creation! Perhaps this is an Estonian contribution to Jåtkuloomine (a pillkopp is a bucket used to clean outhouses, having a 2 meter handle, sometimes with a rope)!
To the stalwarts in Zucotti Park and around the world, the Singing Revolution, and the veterans of other freedom movements, might provide this advice:
  • Have a vision of a positive, compelling, realistic future.
  • Work towards cultural sustainability, resilience, and regeneration. The politics will follow.
  • Educate others, especially your oppressors, in the need for fundamental change in the face of peak energy, climate chaos, environmental degradation, overpopulation and the economic upheaval and restructuring that is merely a symptom of all those converging crises. It ain’t about the rising cost of tuition, or your rent or groceries. It’s much deeper that that.
  • Tell the stories of your vision, and your willing sacrifices, to anyone who will listen, and do it colorfully, with poetry, art and music.
  • Motivate, inspire, organize, and network among all the youth, using open space technology, social media, and any other tools you can muster or invent.
Above all, choose peace and non-violence and let the world be your witness. The key for the survival of not only Estonia, but Jeffersonian democracy, is creation of the continuous creation. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Getting to 350 with a $2 Pocket Knife

In September we attended the Tenth International Permaculture Conference in Amman, Jordan, and met a fellow who became one of the surprise hits at the event. His name is Tony Rinaudo and he works for World Vision in some of the most impoverished parts of the world. Had we known about Tony and what he has been doing when we wrote The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, he would have gotten a full chapter to himself. His work is that remarkable. 

His full talk at the conference was captured to HD video by Craig Mackintosh and is available for free viewing at the Permaculture Research Institute's website. His method is very simple, mostly involving walking through arid landscapes while looking down at his feet. In most places he finds small remnant stubbles of tree stumps with living roots, nibbled away by goats but still alive. Bending down with his pocket knife, he clears the area immediately around, prunes the dead material away, creates a water pocket and exposes the green wood. Voila! Protected from goats, the old tree sprouts new growth — no nursery stock and watering systems required. FMNR has now spread to over 5,000,000 hectares with an estimated 200 million fully revived  trees in Niger, at the edge of the Sahara Desert, and it has recently been introduced into Senegal, Mali, Chad, Ghana, Uganda, Ethiopia and Myanmar. Here is the description of his method, written by Tony himself in 2008.

The Development of Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration

by Tony Rinaudo,
Natural Resource Management Advisor, Integration Team,
World Vision Australia. Originally published on Leisa

Children helping to source firewood
Photo: Author

Conventional methods of reforestation in Africa have often failed. Even community-based projects with individual or community nurseries struggle to keep up the momentum once project funding ends. The obstacles working against reforestation are enormous. But a new method of reforestation called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) could change this situation. It has already done so in the Republic of Niger, one of the world’s poorest nations, where more than 3 million hectares have been re-vegetated using this method. Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration involves selecting and pruning stems regenerating from stumps of previously felled, but still living trees. Sustainability is a key feature of the programme which requires very little investment by either government or NGOs to keep it going. The story in Niger can offer valuable insights and lessons for other nations.

The situation in Niger

The almost total destruction of trees and shrubs in the agricultural zone of Niger between the 1950s and 1980s had devastating consequences. Deforestation worsened the adverse effects of recurring drought, strong winds, high temperatures, infertile soils and pests and diseases on crops and livestock. Combined with rapid population growth and poverty, these problems contributed to chronic hunger and periodic acute famine. Back in 1981, the whole country was in a state of severe environmental degradation, an already harsh land turning to desert, and a people under stress. More and more time was spent gathering poorer and poorer quality firewood and building materials. Women had to walk for miles for fuel such as small sticks and millet stalks. Cooking fuel was so scarce that cattle and even goat manure was used. This further reduced the amount of fodder available for livestock and manure being returned to the land. Under cover of dark, people would even dig up the roots of the few remaining protected trees. Without protection from trees, crops were hit by 60 – 70 km/hour winds, and were stressed by higher temperatures and lower humidity. Sand blasting and burial during wind storms damaged crops. Farmers often had to replant crops up to eight times in a single season. Insect attack on crops was extreme. Natural pest predators such as insect eating birds, reptiles, amphibians and beneficial insects had disappeared along with the trees.

Conventional approaches

The severe famine of the mid 1970s led to a global response. Stopping desertification became a top priority. Conventional methods of raising exotic tree species in nurseries were used: planting out, watering, protecting and weeding. However, despite investing millions of dollars and thousands of hours labour, there was little overall impact. Conventional approaches to reforestation faced insurmountable problems, being costly and labour intensive. Even in the nursery, frogs, locusts, termites and birds destroyed seedlings. Once planted out, drought, sand blasting, pests, competition from weeds and destruction by people and animals negated efforts. Low levels of community ownership and the lack of individual or village level replicability meant that no spontaneous, indigenous re-vegetation movement arose out of these intense efforts. Meanwhile, established indigenous trees continued to disappear at an alarming rate. National forestry laws took tree ownership and responsibility for care of trees out of the hands of the people. Even though ineffective and uneconomic, reforestation through conventional tree planting seemed to be the only way to address desertification at the time.

Discovering Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration

In 1983, the typical rural landscapes in the Maradi Department in the south of Niger, were still windswept and with few trees. It was apparent that even if the Maradi Integrated Development Project, which I managed, had a large budget, plenty of staff and time, the methods being employed would not make a significant impact on this problem. Then one day I understood that what appeared to be desert shrubs were actually trees which were re-sprouting from tree stumps, felled during land clearing. In that moment of inspiration I realised that there was a vast, underground forest present all along and that it was unnecessary to plant trees at all. All that was needed was to convince farmers to change the way they prepared their fields. The method of reforestation that developed is called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR). Each year, live tree stumps sprout multiple shoots. In practising FMNR the farmer selects the stumps she wants to leave and decides how many shoots are wanted per stump. Excess shoots are then cut and side branches trimmed to half way up the stems. A good farmer will return regularly for touch up prunings and thereby stimulate faster growth rates.

The method is not new, it is simply a form of coppicing and pollarding, which has a history of over 1000 years in Europe. It was new, however, to many farmers in Niger who traditionally viewed trees on farmland as “weeds” which needed to be eliminated because they compete with food crops. There is no set system or hard and fast rules. Farmers are given guidelines but are free to choose the number of shoots per stump and the number of stumps per hectare that they leave, the time span between subsequent pruning and harvest of stems, and the method of pruning. 

FMNR in practice

1. FMNR depends on the existence of living tree stumps in the fields to be re-vegetated. New stems which can be selected and pruned for improved growth sprout from these stumps. Standard practice has been for farmers to slash this valuable re-growth each year in preparation for planting crops.

2. With a little attention, this growth can be turned into a valuable resource, without jeopardizing, but in fact, enhancing crop yields. Here, all stalks except one have been cut from the stump. Side branches have been pruned half way up the stem. This single stem will be left to grow into a valuable pole. The problem with this system is that when the stem is harvested, the land will have no tree cover and there will be no wood to harvest for some time.

3. Much more can be gained by selecting and pruning the best five or so stems and removing the remaining unwanted ones. In this way, when a farmer wants wood she can cut the stem(s) she wants and leave the rest to continue growing. These remaining stems will increase in size and value each year, and will continue to protect the environment and provide other useful materials and services such as fodder, humus, habitat for useful pest predators, and protection from the wind and shade. Each time one stem is harvested, a younger stem is selected to replace it.

Species used in this practice in Niger include: Strychnos spinosa, Balanites aegyptiaca, Boscia senegalensis, Ziziphus spp., Annona senegalensis, Poupartia birrea and Faidherbia albida. However, the important determinants of which species to use will be: whatever species are locally available with the ability to re-sprout after cutting, and the value local people place on those species.

Acceptance of this method was slow at first. A few people tried it but were ridiculed. Wood was a scarce and valuable commodity so their trees were stolen. A breakthrough came in 1984, when radio coverage of an international conference on deforestation in Maradi helped to increase awareness of the link between deforestation and the climate. This was followed by a Niger-wide severe drought and famine which reinforced this link in peoples’ minds. Through a “Food for Work” programme in Maradi Department, people in 95 villages were encouraged to give the method a try. For the first time ever, people in a whole district were leaving trees on their farms. Many were surprised that their crops grew better amongst the trees. All benefited from having extra wood for home use and for sale. Sadly, once the programme ended, over two thirds of the 500 000 trees protected in 1984 – 1985 were chopped down! However, district-wide exposure to the benefits of FMNR over a 12-month period was sufficient to introduce the concept and put to rest some fears about growing trees with crops. Gradually more and more farmers started protecting trees, and word spread from farmer to farmer until it became a standard practice. Over a twenty-year period, this new approach spread largely by word of mouth, until today three million hectares across Niger’s agricultural zone have been re-vegetated. This is a significant achievement by the people of Niger. The fact that this happened in one of the world’s poorest countries, with little investment in the forestry sector by either the government or NGOs, makes it doubly significant for countries facing similar problems. 

Reasons for the rapid spread

Aside from simplicity, early returns and low cost, other factors contributed to the rapid spread of FMNR. Introducing the method on a district-wide basis with a “Food for Work” programme eliminated much of the peer pressure that early innovators would normally have to endure. As villagers experimented, project staff who lived in the villages were supportive, teaching, encouraging and standing alongside farmers when disputes or theft of trees occurred. This support was crucial, particularly in the early days when there was much opposition to FMNR. As trees began to colonise the land again, excited government forestry agents nominated lead farmers and even project staff for regional and national awards. Often these nominees won prizes, lifting the profile of FMNR. As news began to spread, national and international NGOs, church and mission groups received training and began promoting the method across Niger.

During the development of farmer-managed natural regeneration, farmers did not own the trees on their own land. There was no incentive to protect trees and much of the destruction of that era was linked to this policy. After discussions with the head of the Maradi Forestry Department, project staff were able to give assurances that if farmers cared for the trees on their land they would be allowed to benefit without fear of being fined. These laws were only changed in 2004 after much negotiation by entities such as USAID. Farmers began to access markets without undue hassle. And as trees on farms switched from being nuisance weeds to becoming a cash crop in their own right, this was good motivation for farmers to cultivate them. Over time, locally agreed upon codes and rules with support from village and district chiefs were established. Without this consensus and support for the protection of private property, it is unlikely that FMNR could have spread as fast as it did. 

The benefits of FMNR quickly became apparent and farmers themselves became the chief proponents as they talked amongst themselves. FMNR can directly alleviate poverty, rural migration, chronic hunger and even famine in a wide range of rural settings. FMNR contributes to stress reduction and nutrition of livestock, and contributes directly and indirectly to both the availability and quality of fodder. Crops benefit directly through modification of microclimate (greater organic matter build up, reduced wind speed, lower temperatures, higher humidity, and greater water infiltration into the soil), and indirectly through manuring by livestock which spend greater time in treed fields during the dry season. The environment in general benefits as bio-diversity increases and natural processes begin to function again. With appropriate promotion, FMNR can reduce tensions between competing interests for landbased resources. For example, as natural regeneration increases fodder availability (tree pods and leaves), farmers are in a better position to leave crop residues on their fields and are less likely to take offence when nomadic herders want to graze their livestock in the dry season.

Harvesting millet amongst the naturally
regenerated trees in Niger
Photo: Autho
Since 2000, World Vision has been promoting this method in a number of other African countries. Malatin André, a Chadian farmer practising it for just two years reported: “Thanks to the new technique our life has changed. Food production has doubled and many people who were laughing at us, have also adopted the techniques for soil regeneration. As a result, there is always good production, the soil is protected from erosion and heat, and women can still get firewood. We have been using the same plot for more than 30 years and without such natural fertilizing possibility, we would soon stop getting food from it”. Khadidja Gangan, a 35 year old Chadian mother of six said: “This year is very exceptional for me because I have been able to get enough sorghum. I cultivated one hectare and harvested 15 bags of sorghum. Generally, I could get three to five bags when working this land in the past. This would have been impossible if I was not taught the new technique of land management”.

Conditions for success and future challenges

There are, however, still many gaps in our knowledge of natural regeneration. Farmers adapt it to their own personal needs and have different reasons for practising it. Further investigation is needed into various technical aspects, such as the most beneficial spacing, species mix, age to harvest, or type of harvesting, for specific purposes. In addition, legal and cultural considerations and historical relations between stakeholders need to be taken into account. For example, the major difficulties faced in Niger included:
  • The tradition of free access to trees on anybody’s property and a code of silence protecting those who cut down trees. It was considered anti-social to expose anybody who had felled trees. This tradition was hard to break and those who left trees were often discouraged when their trees were taken by others. This situation was successfully addresses through advocacy, creation of local by-laws and support from village and district chiefs in administering justice. Gradually, people accepted that there was no difference between stealing from someone’s farm and stealing from within someone’s house.
  • Fear that trees in fields would reduce yields of food crops. Field results put these fears to rest over time.
  • Inappropriate government laws – if the farmer does not have the right to harvest the trees she has protected, there will be little incentive for her to do so. Farmers feared that they would be fined for harvesting their own trees. By collaborating with the forestry service, we were able to stop this from happening.
Other factors also affected the spread of the technique, for example, where language may reflect deeply held attitudes. In Hausa the word for tree (itce) is the same as the word for firewood, and therefore trees were seen to have little value of their own, apart from for firewood. Cultural factors may also work against adoption. Traditionally, Fulani cattle herders saw their lifestyle as the best in the world. Initially they found it humiliating to consider harvesting and selling wood, the way sedentary farmers did.

In addition, the practice of FMNR depends on having living tree stumps in the fields to start with. However, in many cases, farmers can successfully broadcast seeds of desirable species which, once established, become the basis of a FMNR system. The number of trees to be left in a field will depend on the number of stumps present and the farmer’s preferences. Some left over 200 trees per hectare, others not even the recommended 40. The “correct” number of trees to be left will be a balance between farmers’ needs for wood and other products, optimal environmental protection and minimal negative effect on crop yields. In areas of low rainfall, growth rates will be slower, and harvest or cutting regime should be reduced accordingly. Also, in low rainfall areas, establishment of direct sown seeds will take longer and be more difficult than in higher rainfall areas.

In areas where existing species are predominately thorny, or they compete heavily with crop plants, farmers may have second thoughts about FMNR. Where existing tree species are palatable to livestock, the increased effort required to herd animals or protect trees is beyond the reach of many farmers. In many cases however, the species are not palatable and there is no need to exclude animals from the field during the dry season.


What most entities working in reforestation have failed to recognise is that vast areas of cleared agricultural land in Africa retain an “underground forest” of living stumps and roots. By simply changing agricultural practices, this underground forest can re-sprout, at little cost, very rapidly and with great beneficial impact. In other words, in many instances the costly, time consuming and inefficient methods of raising seedlings, planting them out and protecting them is not even necessary for successful reforestation. Presumably, the same principle would apply anywhere in the world where tree and shrub species have the ability to re-sprout after being harvested.

Farmer managed natural regeneration is a cheap and rapid method of re-vegetation, which can be applied over large areas of land and can be adapted to a range of land use systems. It is simple and can be adapted to each individual farmer’s unique requirements, providing multiple benefits to people, livestock, crops and the environment, including physical, economic and social benefits to humans. Through managing natural regeneration, farmers can control their own resources without depending on externally funded projects or needing to buy expensive inputs (seed, fertilizers, nursery supplies) from suppliers. Its beauty lies in its simplicity and accessibility to even the poorest farmers, and once it has been accepted, it takes on a life of its own, spreading from farmer to farmer, by word of mouth. 

Tony Rinaudo. Natural Resource Management Specialist, World Vision Australia. G.P.O. Box 399C, Melbourne, Victoria 3001, Australia. E-mail: tonyrinaudo@worldvision.com.au




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