Wednesday, April 25, 2012


" Without electricity filling stations cannot pump. Cars pile up, first in long lines, as they did in Russia and Cuba, then simply abandoned on the street. Four months after Fukushima, streets still held cars without gasoline. When there is no gasoline for cars, there is also no gasoline for trucks. This would include the trucks that deliver groceries from farms and processing plants to stores. In Japan, the shelves soon emptied of perishables, then staples such as rice, grains and noodles."
Empty shelves in grocery stores in Japan
   History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes, said Mark Twain, and one of the verses we’ve been hearing is the sound of Japan tinkling from nuclear fallout, in the chord of Chernobyl. In February of 2012, an official Japanese inquiry revealed that evacuation of Tokyo was considered by the government even before the hydrogen explosions at Fukushima Daichi but was forestalled by ordering human cannon fodder into the blazing radioactive reactors. 
   Last week it was reported that a Tokyo evacuation would have required the Kuril Islands to receive refugees, news that raised ire in Russia, which captured the 56-island chain 810 miles off Japan’s northeastern shore at the end of World War II and has no intention of returning it to Japan, even in such dire circumstances.
   Japanese diplomats assuaged their Russian counterparts by revealing they were also “seriously considering” an offer by China to relocate tens of millions of their citizens to the Chinese mainland to inhabit what are called the “ghost cities,” built by the Chinese government in recent years for reasons still unknown. In a 2010 article, London’s Daily Mail revealed, “Some estimates put the number of empty homes at as many as 64 million, with up to 20 new cities being built every year in the country's vast swathes of free land.”
   The Fukushima reactor complex is not out of the frying pan, the Japanese government is still attempting to make an omelet from its broken eggs, while occasionally acknowledging it hasn’t a clue how to do that. Arnie Gunderson of Fairewinds Associates told Alex Smith on Radio Ecoshock earlier this month that the nuclear fuel pools left tottering in blown up buildings would be toppled by another earthquake, putting Tokyo at risk. And, he said, the likelihood of another large earthquake there, soon, is very high.
Toru Sakawa
Gundersen said it is unlikely there would be an explosion as the Fuke #4 swimming pool collapses, but dangerous “hot” particles would still be propelled around the world, because within two days of the collapse, the Zircalloy and radioactive metals (Technicium, Strontium, Cesium and Plutonium, for instance) would burn at a very high temperature, sending particles eight miles high. The result would be an everlasting disaster for Japan that could create a permanent no-man’s strip 50 miles wide across the country, dividing it in half and, by the way, lethally contaminating Tokyo, 238 km (148 mi) to the South. Gunderson said that anyone living in or near Tokyo should evacuate at the first news of another earthquake and fire at the plant.
Meeting at Toru Sakawa's farm
   One of the best talks at the 11th Australasian Permaculture Convergence in Turangi, New Zealand last week was by Toru Sakawa, a permaculture farmer and teacher in Northern Japan. Toru began his permaculture career 20 years ago in New Zealand, as a WWoOFer at Rainbow Valley Farm, where he received his permaculture design certificate.
The Biodiesel Adventure tour distills its own fuel as it goes
Shoe delivery in Fukushima Prefecture
   When the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster befell his country on March 11, 2011, Toru’s farm was being visited by an expeditionary film crew called Biodiesel Adventure, which had been driving around the world on waste vegetable oil. Leaving Tokyo in December, 2007, they had driven from Vancouver to Washington DC, including a stop at Los Angeles Eco Village, then Europe, Africa, Kazakhstan, Russia, China, and back to Japan.
    In the months that followed the disaster, they could continue to drive around Fukushima Prefecture when no-one else could, because they made their own fuel onboard the vehicle. Heroically, they abandoned their view tour and morphed into Biodiesel Relief, using Toru’s farm as their base camp.
   The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later… The price of the Chernobyl catastrophe was overwhelming, not only in human terms, but also economically. Even today, the legacy of Chernobyl affects the economies of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus... The twentieth anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe reminds us that we should not forget the horrible lesson taught to the world in 1986. We should do everything in our power to make all nuclear facilities safe and secure. We should also start seriously working on the production of the alternative sources of energy.
Breadline in Russia after Chernobyl
   Lest we forget, it was the collapse of the former Soviet Union that precipitated the “Special Period” in Cuba, wherein the Cuban export trade disintegrated, imports of subsidized commodities, especially petroleum, vanished overnight, and the population was left to a diet of one-third less daily calories and clunky Chinese bicycles to take them to and from work. Cuba became a nation of skinny farmers, growing 80% of the food consumed by Havana within city limits.
   We might not have expected to see that rhyme repeated in Japan, but it has begun being chanted. Some things happened right after the multiple meltdown that were not in anyone’s emergency planning documents, but this is what a nuclear meltdown feels like.
Waiting for gas in Japan
   Without electricity filling stations cannot pump. Cars pile up, first in long lines, as they did in Russia and Cuba, then simply abandoned on the street. Four months after Fukushima, streets still held cars without gasoline. 
   When there is no gasoline for cars, there is also no gasoline for trucks. This would include the trucks that deliver groceries from farms and processing plants to stores. In Japan, the shelves soon emptied of perishables, then staples such as rice, grains and noodles. What was left? Candy. Soda. Beer and liquor. If you are thinking of what to stockpile for the financial collapse, the end of the dollar and the confiscation of gold, those cases of Grand Marnier and Beluga caviar may not be as good an idea as you thought.
Filling station out of gas
   Toru Sakawa and Biodiesel Relief spent the past year making fuel from waste oil and moving supplies from farms to evacuation centers. What did they need most? Well, first, food. Toru shared his winter supplies of rice and grains, dried meat and eggs. Then he went to a neighbor to learn how to make tofu in a traditional wood-fired kitchen. 
   Next, shoes. People had run out of their homes in the night barefoot. Then, bicycles. Bicycles are still more popular today and more people ride them than before the earthquake.
In Russia food trucks stopped at the first apartment houses
   Another similarity between Cuba and Japan was the sheer scale of the crisis burning up telephone wires and Blackberries in capitols -- surpassing any that had happened before then. In the Cuban missile crisis the White House and Kremlin were on hair triggers, the US talking about an air strike against missile silos that Pentagon generals were blissfully unaware were already armed and launch-ready, under the command of field officers, and aimed at major cities where their families lived. 
   In Japan they were thinking of sending 20 to 60 million people to Russia and China. Bureaucrats were tasked to draw up contingency plans, post-haste, like, by next morning, if you please? The mind boggles. 
   In Cuba the crisis was fueled by a combination of the Monroe Doctrine (the US retains its Manifest Destiny to be the sole colonial empire in the Western Hemisphere), a rabid Cold War political dialectic -- better dead than red – and an inchoate fear that whatever philosophy Fidel Castro had contracted fighting against Generalisimo Batista might be contagious. All patently insane.
   In the latter case the crisis came from the technological insanity -- borne of advertising hype; peaceful atoms, energy too cheap to meter -- of untethered desire to power superspeed trains and svelt coffee pots by bubbling a brew of the deadliest poisons ever invented, at temperatures approaching the Sun’s. 
Permaculture Plan for Refugee Ecovillages
   In both countries the insanity was driven by herd behavior, with each herd -- generals, politicians, consumers, engineers -- conditioned to be stampeded easily. Fortunately for us, John F. Kennedy was less easily cowed than were post-war Japanese industrialists, economists, politicians and antinuclear activists. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev understood the enormity of the risk, and the Cuban crisis was brought back from the brink by cool-headed negotiation. In Japan the juggernaut that bought us a crisis that no one has yet invented a way out of still grows larger by the day.
   At least the Chinese have pre-positioned some empty cities. This is a wise preparation for any nation considering following its nuclear Sirens’ wails.

Monday, April 16, 2012


The Māori people are the indigenous people of Aotearoa (New Zealand) who first arrived in waka hourua (voyaging canoes) from their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki more than 1000 years ago. Today, Māori make up over 14 percent of the population. Their language and culture has a major impact on all facets of New Zealand life and that has been experiencing a renaissance since a civil rights struggle in the 1960s brought about an honest effort to reconcile the cultural divide and give the Māori full recognition.

School Posters in Maori
Resilience by Design, the 11th Australasian Permaculture Convergence, was hosted by Te Kura o Hirangi, a Māori school in Tūrangi, on the North Island. The Tūrangi-based kura kaupapa Māori now cultivate their own indoor and outdoor māra (gardens) with help from the permaculture community. The school teaches in the Māori language and publishes curricula in Māori for other schools in New Zealand and Australia.

Hirangi Marae traditional Wharenui
Our five-day hui (meeting) began with a formal Powhiri at the Hirangi Marae, the Māori lodge next to the school. The Powhiri is a request for permission by the manuhiri (guests, in this case some 500 permaculturists from all over the world), to the tangata whenua hosts, the kura kaupapa Māori elders, to enter their territory in peace. In a drizzling rain, the long line of guests entered the courtyard of the Marae from the Eastern gate, women and children sheltered behind the men. Once seated, the group was addressed by an elder of the Hirangi, who advanced a short distance into the open space from the Marae temple to deliver the wero (challenge). Behind him the line of senior tribal members, dressed in black, assembled to hear the request.
School Posters in Maori Language

Our spokesperson, an elderly member of the New Zealand Soil Association, advanced a few paces into the field and spoke in Māori. He explained permaculture, how it had benefited other places, and the benefits that it might bring to the kura kaupapa Māori. The Māori elder returned and spoke more, in Māori, challenging whether that was a good enough reason for the group to be allowed to remain.
Gardens at the Te Kura o Hirangi
The visitor spokesman brought forward some of the distinguished elders who had been invited there as presenters and introduced them. A younger Māori then stepped into the field and spoke very firmly about the sovereignty of the Māori and the inviolability of the Marae. When he retreated, a second spokesperson for the visitors, a Māori teacher from the school, his face covered in spiral tattoos, stepped forward into the field, and in the growing rain, walked around gesturing and insisting that the convergence was the best thing since sliced bread and these people would be silly to turn it away. 

Guest beds inside the Wharenui

When he went on a bit too long, some of the Māori women in the back of the permaculture group began singing a traditional Māori song to shut him up. After the song concluded, he resumed, and so, after a few minutes of letting him carry on, they drowned him out again with another song. This time he finished his speech by bringing forward the koha (gifts) that our group had prepared and laying them on a blanket at the center of the field. After he backed up off the field, the Māori elders motioned for two young men to advance to the blanket and retrieve the gifts, which they did, never turning their backs to the visitors.

Each of the elders examined the gifts in turn, and, approving, they gave a nod to their spokesperson, who then proceeded back into the field and gave the tribe’s permission for the guests to advance to the wharenui (meeting house). With the elders sent out first, the entire line of 500 participants then proceeded to the hongi — rubbing noses with the Māori elders. One by one we clasp hands and draw slowly closer to the other person, eye to eye, until closing one’s eyes before making contact and lingering just a moment to inhale. This was repeated some 10,000 times as the lines passed through each other.

Te Kura o Hirangi School

The Marae is bounded by the wharenui on one side, the maka (long canoe boathouse), the field of our initial powhiri, and a huge dining hall with kitchen and additional outdoor dining area. After sharing kai (food supplied by Awhi Farm, a permaculture squat nearby, and local merchants), convergence events — scores of workshops and plenaries — proceeded at the Te Kura o Hirangi school. Locally sourced coffee was roasted in Raetihi and wine provided from the vinyards at Omori. 

Gathering in the Pub at night for a bluegrass jam with Jo Pearsall on fiddle

At the end of the five days, the Hirangi kitchen crew came out to the dining area to accept the gratitude of the participants. Before leaving, they sang a song of who they were — this is my mountain, this is my river, this is our people, this is who we are, which was followed by a traditional Māori Haka from the men, young and old.

We didn’t fully appreciate the significance of this Haka, called Ka Mate, although we had seen it routinely performed by the All Blacks professional rugby team as they psyched themselves up for a match. The All Blacks got this particular Haka from the Turangi Māori because it tells an especially moving story of surmounting obstacles to prevail. 

Today we were taken up to Rotopounamu, a crater lake in a dormant volcano, with views off towards the volcano shown as Mt. Doom in Lord of the Rings. It was near these high lakes that Te Rauparaha, his forces flanked in an 1820 battle, was routed and forced to flee for his life. Pursued by Ngati Maniapoto and Waikato enemies, he came upon a lakeside village and was hidden by an elderly woman in a food-storage pit. When his pursuers had passed, he emerged all hairy from the seed pods sticking to his sweat, and climbed back into the light to be met by his friends. This Ka Mate haka he later composed to express how he had felt at that moment.

Te Rauparaha’s haka begins with a chant:
Kikiki kakaka kauana!
Kei waniwania taku tara
Kei tarawahia, kei te rua i te kerokero!
He pounga rahui te uira ka rarapa;
Ketekete kau ana to peru kairiri
Mau au e koro e – Hi! Ha!
Ka wehi au ka matakana,
Ko wai te tangata kia rere ure?
Tirohanga ngā rua rerarera
Ngā rua kuri kakanui i raro! Aha ha!
Then follows the main body of the haka:
Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!
Ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!
Tēnei te tangata pūhuruhuru
Nāna nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā
Ā, upane! ka upane!
Ā, upane, ka upane, whiti te ra!
’Tis death! ‘tis death! (or: I may die) ’Tis life! ‘tis life! (or: I may live)
’Tis death! ‘tis death! ’Tis life! ‘tis life!
This is the hairy man
Who brought the sun and caused it to shine
A step upward, another step upward!
A step upward, another... the Sun shines!

This is reminiscent of the greeting we commonly heard at the start of each day, and when the elders leaned forward to touch our noses, and when we were appreciative of something, or parting. The expression “Ka ora!” — “Tis life” or “I may yet live!” is very close to “Kia ora”  — “Hello” in Aotearoan.

Monday, April 9, 2012

In the Land of the Long White Cloud

"Off to the northwest lies the Shire — we passed through Hobbiton only yesterday. Lake Taupo, which is beautiful in the fall colors, is this rugged land’s stomach."

Before the end of the Age of Homo Petroleo, we’d like to travel to places we are unlikely to see again once jet fuel becomes prohibitive for commercially-viable air travel and in that time before sail transport can scale up to sate our wanderlust. We expect it may take quite some time for forests of hard mastwood to grow out to maturity once more, even in the tropics, and even longer for wooden boatbuilders and worthy sea captains to relearn extinct skills. 
This month we are in New Zealand. Next month our journeys take us to Alaska.

Before the beginning there alone was Io, Io-the-parentless, Io-the-endless, Io-the-timeless, Io-without-limit.

He moved and the Great Nothingness was born. In the spiralling currents it followed itself and searched. It found heart and became ignited. It thought as does a mind. And desired as does a dream. It took form and breathed. And in a second that was a million years, it multiplied and grew. To become a shadow. A darkness. A night. A night of gestation. A night for bearing the Ancients.

There was Ranginui, the virile male, sky-bound and active. There was Papatuanuku, the female, land-bound and passive. They breathed together as lovers and in the Night-that-knows-no-end there were born to them seventy mighty sons. There was Whiro-the-dominant whose wrath was as an axe upon the tree, and Tawhiri-of-the-elements, whose breath was the wind itself. There was Tangaroa-of-the-seas, whose ceaseless waves would chisel away the land. There was Tu-of-the-red-face, by whose hand mankind would know war, and Turongo-the-gentle who would lay down the foundations of peace. There was Haumia-the-abundant who was lord over the fruits of the earth and Ruaumoko-the-lastborn, whose one tiny movement would cause the earth herself to quake and tremor. Finally there was Tane-the-thoughtful, whose actions and deeds would produce the world and all its parts.

Aotearoa is an unusual place to host a permaculture convergence. The previous ten Australasian Convergences have been in Australia. There are some 70 Ozzies here this time, but there are more than 400 others, many from other countries. As if to presage the emergence of glocalization, the majority come from right here, Aotearoa, or what the  Pakeha (Europeans) called New Zealand. We will be reporting more from the Convergence, but we wanted to give our first impressions of this place. 

We are in Turangi, in the Lake Taupo bioregion, where a crystal clear trout stream runs down from still active volcanoes, the ones pictured as Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Off to the northwest lies The Shire — we passed through Hobbiton only yesterday. Lake Taupo, which is beautiful in the fall colors, is this rugged land’s stomach. The soils are so rich that the best farms raise racehorses and the forests produced Ithilien, where Sméagol chased and caught a fish near a waterfall. 

It was Tane who separated their parents to produce the sky above and the land below. And when his grieving parents' tears filled the world, he turned his mother over to stop Ranginui from having to look upon her face and be reminded of their separation.

Tane brought light to the world by placing the stars in the sky, the sun at its zenith and the moon lower down on his father's head. He build the first house of nobility and it remains to this day the blueprint from which all homes are templated. He filled it with the knowledge of the gods, which he retrieved from the summit of the heavens at the instruction of Io-the-creator himself. He produced the trees, the birds, the insects and fish to clothe and adorn his mother, the earth. Finally, he created the first human, a woman from whom all peoples are descended. The world of eternal light where all beings were kin, no matter who or what, was born.

Many times did summer and winter struggle in rivalry before Maui-of-the-topknot, half-man, half-god, was gifted to the world. Raised by his priestly elder, Tamanui, he was shown the secrets of the universe; the kinship that existed between all things that would allow him to take on the form of the tree, the bird, the fish, the lizard. He mastered himself and returned to his family ready to conquer.

With a fearless heart he secured the magic jawbone of knowledge of his ancestress Murirangawhenua. And with it he caught and slowed down the sun, which sped across the heavens at will with little thought for the activities of man. He made fire available to people by forcing the very last flame of the Keeper-of-the-fires, Mahuika, to become imbued into the heartwood of the tree. He visited the spirit world to find his father and before his death at the hands of the Goddess-of-dearh, Hine-nui-te-po, he fished up these sacred isles.

Lake Taupo and its smaller cousins formed from the Oruanui eruption, 26,500 years ago. A later eruption in 181 AD was viewed in the sky from Europe and China. The most recent eruption, a minor one, was less than a decade ago. As we biked the bridge over Tongariro River this morning, we were not far from the site of the Great Battle of the Last Alliance, where Elves and Men joined to rid the world of Sauron’s evil. Just up the river lies Dagorland Plain, where the armies of Isildur, King Aragon’s father, met a huge Orc host in 3231 SA. Ten years later Isildur was killed in hand combat with Sauron outside Barad-dûr, but managed to slice off that famous ring finger, which is why Sméagal was able to fish the One Ring from the river not far below this bridge where we can look down and see the shadow of our bicycle. 

Using the sacred jawbone as a hook, Maui-the-relentless hauled up his great fish from the depths of Te Moananui a Kiwa, the Pacific ocean. But as he paid homage to the gods for having given him such a wondrous gift, with greed in their eyes and lies on their tongues his four brothers took to the fish with knives. In its death throes it became torn and shredded with gullies and gorges, hills and mountains. In time, the stingray-like fish became the North island of New Zealand while the canoe of Maui became the South Island.

The head of the fish is at [the] capital city, Wellington. The ridge of mountain ranges that run down the center of the island is its backbone. To the east coast and west to Taranaki can be seen its fins. The stomach is Lake Taupo while the heart is at Maunga Pohatu in the Ureweras. Northland is the whipping tail of the stingray. From tip to tip, fish to canoe, can be seen the myriad of extremities of this once virgin land.

And many centuries ago, when the voyager Kupe with his family and wife came upon these islands shrouded in mist and cloud they named them Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud. 

[Maori narrative courtesy of Chris Winitana].

The way we see the world is not necessarily “ding en sich,” the thing per seRather, our interpretation colors what we see; how we classify and articulate shades the perception itself. So, whether we elect to pursue a rigid adherence to empirical facts — the receding glaciers and volcanism that left their marks in local topology — or choose frameworks of myth and story — the knife slashes of Maui’s four brothers — matters only at the margin. One view is rich in geophysical symmetry, the other in nuance and revealed meaning.

This richness, and our choice about how to regard it, are all about us, all the time, everywhere. Our choice has always been the liberal view — abiding in all ways, taking solace from all voices, and receiving wisdom of all kinds. This is a very colorful tapestry, even when not perfectly coherent. It is a perfect whatever it is.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Once “Teenage Genius” now fights for his life

“Ionizing radiation is one of the most biologically destructive forces in the universe. It is fiendishly inappropriate to try to tame it for a source of energy or anything else.”

Kaiser Permanente Cancer Clinic, Santa Rosa California, April 1, 2022

Back in 2012, Taylor Wilson told reporters from the principal news delivery media of that day, “When I hold something radioactive it is an indescribable feeling, kind of like when I am holding my girlfriend.”

At 11, he started mining for uranium and buying vials of deuterium gas and plutonium on the Internet. At 14 Wilson became the youngest person to build a fusion reactor, at home, in his parents’ Texarkana, Arkansas garage. At 17 he gave a TED talk describing how, besides the fusion device, he had developed an advanced nuclear radiation detector, a radio-telescope, and even a cure for cancer. That cure is something he wishes he had now. Like all the other inventions, it was more hype than reality.

“I was deluded and deceived,” he said through his oxygen mask. “My teachers and mentors had convinced me that the hysteria about nuclear radiation was overblown, and so I was handing radioactive materials using only light covering — a raincoat and rubber gloves.”

At 14, when he was recruited to the Davidson Academy of Nevada, the nuclear safety officials there made him wear a dosimeter. “I used to brag that I’d never gotten a dose that’s above legal levels,” Wilson said. “Now I understand how meaningless the legal limit is. Now I know there is no safe dose. If I had known then what I know now, I would have been an astronomer, or a carpenter.”

As a teenager, the way he knew his fusion reactor was working was when it produced enough radiation to cause lethal radiation poisoning. He told an interviewer back then, “pop culture has instilled in Americans an irrational fear of radiation, when in fact the household chemicals under your sink are more dangerous.”

Wilson has six types of cancer, and the worst of these, an adenocarcinoma of his colon, has metastasized to his liver. His doctors give him only weeks to live. “Hindsight is always 20/20,” he says, “but I think we were all deceived by the nuclear public relations people who paid for illegitimate scientific research and then weaseled their way into the back rooms where government regulations and school textbooks were being written. None of them actually made yellowcake the way I did, but they willfully set a trap that would ensnare an innocent boy.”

Wilson was not even born when Three Mile Island and Chernobyl reactors melted down but he was undeterred by the four-reactor explosion at Fukushima in 2011. The string of nuclear accidents in the following decade in France, India, China, Cuba and the United States did not phase him either, because he assumed it was just bad engineering or stupid operators.

“I finally began to grasp the problem when a routine x-ray found nodes on my lungs,” he said. Immersing himself in health science, he read Radiation and Human Health by Dr. John Gofman, a co-discoverer of plutonium. He credits that book with changing his outlook.

“Suddenly I saw into the submolecular level for the first time, and understood the interaction between ionizing radiation and living structures, like my own DNA. Ionizing radiation is one of the most biologically destructive forces in the universe. It is fiendishly inappropriate to try to tame it for a source of energy or anything else. We should never have unlocked it in the first place.” Wilson’s voice trailed off as weakness overtook him and he became unable to continue.

Well-wishers from all over the world have sent cards that fill his hospital room.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

The National Discourse

" The national discourse is a circular kabuki, with heroes and victims exchanging masks in an elaborate choreography moving left to right and back again."
   Re-entering the United States after a 4-month hiatus to saner parts of the world, we are struck by how even Alexis de Tocqueville underestimated the pathology of the population here. Coming back is like putting on x-ray spectacles, maybe the pair passed to Joseph Smith by the Angel Moroni. USAnians, particularly the Republican variant, are truly warped.
   Tocqueville observed that USAnians possessed a tendency for each to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and to withdraw into the circle of family and friends. “[W]ith this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look for itself.” In such conditions “we lose interest in the future of our descendants... and meekly allow ourselves to be led in ignorance by a despotic force….”
   Tocqueville said this condition would lead to the government playing the role of all-wise parent and the citizenry that of “perpetual children.” The hook was entrepreneurial opportunity; the chance for beggars to become kings. Europeans in the early 19th Century held no such illusions, Tocqueville argued; they knew full well that the lower classes had no hope of gaining more than minimal security, while the upper classes had scant chance of losing their hereditary advantage.
   Frankly we cannot remember a point in our lifetime when the national discourse has sunk to a lower level. That is saying a lot, because although we were not around for the sinking of the Maine or Lusitania, or the“surprise” at Pearl Harbor, we grew up with the Red Scare, first from Truman, then from Eisenhower; the Missile Gap Kennedy used to flank Nixon; the Tonkin Gulf incident that LBJ crafted to fund the Vietnam War; Nixon; Reagan; Bush Sr.’s Operation Just Cause that left a civilian body count on the sidewalks of Panama City comparable to New York City’s on 9-11; 9-11; and Obama’s Af-Pak drone wars, the omnipotent terror from above. These were and are deceptions that conduce our “sheeple” to trust their all-knowing parents to protect them.
   The bobble head news cycle is carried along on well-trod framing crafted by long-in-the-tooth Republican strategists who seem to think the iPhone generation can be motivated to vote for an evangelical prophet of infinite prosperity by 5-second bytes of coded epithets and saber-rattling against Mexican job-stealers or Moslem jihadists on our doorstep.
   Mitt Romney said of Obama in Alabama, “This is a president who thinks America is doing better. He should go out and talk to the 24 million Americans who are out of work or stopped looking for work or are unemployed.” That is correct as far as it goes; until you get to his promises to put people back to work and build a prosperous economy by opening up new energy horizons like the Keystone XL Pipeline and hydrofracking. Newt Gingrich promises to return gas prices to $2.50 per gallon, the lowest in the Western world. Drill Baby Drill.
   It isn’t any better on the other side. Democratic Governors Association spokeswoman Kate Hansen told reporters, “If Republican governors would focus more on job creation and expanding opportunity instead of hard-right sideshows like attacking workers’ rights, suppressing voter turnout and mandatory ultrasounds, perhaps their states would be able to close the gap with Democratic-led states, which are creating 21st century jobs at a higher rate and making the investments a modern economy needs to promote continued growth.”
   On March 17, in his blog post for the New York Times, “Follow the Money, Follow the Sacredness,” Jonathan Haidt wrote:
  The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism - all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”
  This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.
  Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”
  This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred - hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.
   The problem, Haidt observed (as did Olympia Snow a day later), is that it is immoral to compromise if you are confirmed in this faith. You have to be uncompromising. Whether you are defending against the “War on Christianity” (as a Mormon, no less), or the war being waged on trade unions, minority voters, immigrants and women, you are not permitted to compromise. It is war.  
   The current president is waging his own war on immigrants (deporting twice as many as his predecessor), civil liberties (claiming powers of indefinite detention and to execute citizens without trial) and international law (the drone wars, Gaza, climate change), which leads us to wonder which tribe’s sacred principles he pledges allegiance to? Probably neither. Can pragmatism be sacred? Hardly. Being the stepchild of compromise, pragmatism is profane.  
   What the tweedledum/tweedledee political parties seem to be agreed upon is that the USA should harken back to 19th Century Europe, where the lower classes have no hope of gaining more than minimal security and the upper classes have scant chance of losing their many advantages. That is a formula for an Occupy Everything resistance movement, but one easily diffused and co-opted by the material wealth and equality promises USAnians are suckers for.  
   The national discourse is a circular kabuki, with heroes and victims exchanging masks in an elaborate choreography moving left to right and back again. Confused? We are. Rome is burning. The barbarians are at the gate. This theater is on fire, and no one is yet moving toward the exits. Is the stage play THAT good?  
   Remove the masks and what we see are nearly identical actors: one black, one white; one bought and paid by the 1%, the other from the 99%; both doing everything they can to return us to the status quo ante — the way things were when oil flowed easily from the ground, the atmosphere had plenty of carbon parking space, the population could be fed, housed and amused cheaply on the backs of immigrants, and vast empires-for-the-taking stretched out over the horizon if our military was mighty. Casting spells of frontier colonies on Mars, near-infinite deposits of creamy energy under the Dakotas, and other fantasy utopias passes for reality now. Voters and investors alike are swept up in a nostalgic frenzy. And as they fantasize, so their tiny boat drifts closer to the falls, and is encircled by the current.  
   For, as Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “The inhabitants of the United States may retard the calamities which they apprehend, but they cannot now destroy their efficient cause.”

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Bumping Through Belize

"If all capital is eventually backed by natural resources and ecosystem services, how can a country so rich in those elements, a country that has hosted monumental (solar-powered) civilizations in past centuries, find itself so intractably desperate and deprived?"  


Riding the bus from Cancun to Belize City we noticed something so quintessentially Belizian we knew for certain we were in the right country. On a small concrete home, painted bright yellow and orange, there were two beat-up wooden doors. Above one, in large brown letters, were the hand-painted words, “Lose Fat Gym.” Over the other was written “Burritos.”

In many respects Belize ranks with the poorest nations in the world. The per capita GDP, according to the most recent IMF report, is $4,275. Compare that with $50,200 in the United States or $34,300 for the average of the EU. The Belizian economy ranks 163rd of 183 nations. Average wage is $10 per day. Average annual income is about a third less than GDP per capita because that missing third goes to foreign banks and businesses, which is what makes elections so interesting.

Belize has a nominally 2-party system — the governing United Democratic Party (UDP) and the opposition People’s United Party (PUP). In actuality, there is hardly any discernible difference between the two. Both promise more jobs and economic growth, a fair shake and an end to corruption. Once in office, all of the opposites to those promises prevail. And, since whichever party is in power can siphon off the most graft and kickbacks, a lot of money gets spent on elections, which are premised on the absurd and unrealizable myths of growth and jobs.
Gomier and PDC arrivals watch political parade from the restaurant in Punta Gorda
Sitting in Gomier’s restaurant, we watched first the PUP caravan of schoolbuses, then the UDP caravan of schoolbuses parade noisily down the street in Punta Gorda. Each of the farmers, students, or workers who were on the buses wore new t-shirts of their party and had been paid $100 for that day — a ten-day wage. There were parades like this nearly every day we were in Belize. In that two weeks, a nimble laborer could, by showing up at different rallies, changing t-shirts and being paid, make half a year’s salary just by riding buses and chanting slogans. In the end, the UDP retained control by the narrow margin of 17 seats to 14 for the PUP. The PUP outsider, Oscar, beat the UDP’s insider, Juan, in Toledo West, in a nasty smear campaign that makes Newt Gingrich's look tame.
Why is Belize so intractably poor? If all capital is eventually backed by natural resources and ecosystem services, how can a country so rich in those elements, a country that has hosted monumental (solar-powered) civilizations in past centuries, find itself so intractably desperate and deprived?
Permaculture Course at Maya Mountain Research Farm
Belize is overbrimming with natural capital. While population expansion is now making steady inroads into the back country, Belize, at the core of the great neotropical migratory corridor, boasts 566 species of birds. Traveling the river to our permaculture course by dory, we saw a river otter, a pair of collared aracari (similar to a toucan), a boat-billed flycatcher, a rose-throated becard, and the violaceous trogon. A villager we met had a pet peccary boar.
The sad thing is that between climate change and the embedded poverty of the steadily growing population (36.8% are below 14), Belize’s real wealth, and the hope for any true recovery, is now endangered more than ever before. The biggest symbol of that was the wide, paved road to Guatemala being constructed through the southernmost district. It will pass straight through the middle of previously roadless and inaccessible highland biodiversity sanctuaries, home to Howler monkeys, jaguar and tapir. This is destruction of wealth on a scale that can barely be imagined.

Gomier’s vegetarian restaurant, which makes its own soymilk-seaweed smoothies and tofu fritters, displays a rare exception to the standard fare in Belizian restaurants which is always stew beans, rice, fry bread and fry fish and bake chicken (served for breakfast, lunch and dinner). In most homes and restaurants the fish plate is the local catch of the day, but as the reef and rivers grow more depleted from overfishing, industrial tilapia is the new normal, and escaped farm tilapia are devouring their ways through Belize’s rich river ecosystems. 
Looking at Belize’s population more closely, 26.43 live births per 1,000 people seems like a lot (the US is 13.8, China 12.1, Germany 8.1) until you consider that the infant mortality rate is 22.95 neonatal deaths per 1,000 live births (the US is 6, China 16, Germany 3.5). That high mortality rate for babies is a function of lack of access to medical services, unsanitary living conditions, and a number of diseases endemic to the wet tropics: bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, dengue fever and malaria. These diseases are compounded by the cheap, subsidized concrete block that is replacing traditional elevated wood buildings. A block building seems more hurricane and termite resistant, and probably is, but it clings moisture to its surface and cultures black molds to be inhaled or ingested by its occupants.
 One of the films we always like to show the first night in a permaculture course is Albert Bartlett’s lecture on Understanding the Exponential Function. Bartlett displays two columns of solutions to the population dilemma. The left column shows things that people usually consider valuable pursuits of civil society – food security, sanitation, and medicine, for instance. The right displays things society abhors — war, disease, murder, and famine. Bartlett asks a straightforward question: if we want to bring down population, which column should we favor? He also observes that choices of measures like abstinence, contraception, and abortion — political punching bags in the US political scene, as they are also in largely Catholic Belize —are obviously less painful than letting nature decide.
The story is a familiar one, repeated often in the Americas over the past 500 years. A “wealthy” and industrious country (in this case England) arrives seeking trade goods (sailing masts, cacao, spices, and dyes made from native plants). In place of the local form of agriculture (in this case the carbon-endowing milpa system of long-rotation agroforestry that we described in The Biochar Solution), the Europeans impose the plow and irrigation style that desertified the Middle East, where it originated, and was steadily doing the same to the soils of England in the 18th Century, forcing the fleets of exploration. After the invention of the Haber-Bosch process and the development of Round-Up and terminator seeds, this process accelerates to bolster corporate profits in London and other trade centers. As a result, the thin tropical soils are ruined, chemical dependency established, food security demolished, and poverty embedded.
In Belize the Royal Navy was especially keen to harvest two types of trees, samwood and bloodwood (Haematoxylum var.). Samwood grew straight and dense and was ideal for tall ship construction. Bloodwood (Palo de Tinto in Mexico) extracts are used as remedies by indigenous peoples and were included in the London Pharmacopoeia of 1740, which listed bloodwood tea as being effective against tuberculosis and dysentery. More significantly for the woolen mills in England, the heartwood is used to produce dye for cloth and a pink coloring still used today in pharmaceuticals and toothpaste.
The new southern road cut a swath between the farm of Burton Cadiz (left) and his neighbor
Pirate log cutters gave way to permanent settlements and by the late 18th century, an oligarchy of relatively wealthy British settlers controlled the political economy of “British Honduras.” These settlers claimed about four-fifths of the available land; owned about half the slaves; controlled imports, exports, and the wholesale and retail trades; and levied taxes to economically enslave the free population. When the indigenous Caribbean Garifuna migrated out of Honduras and founded Punta Gorda in the mid-19th century, slavery had been abolished in English colonies but the economic tricks of enslavement remained, and they quickly ensnared the Garifuna. In order to pay their taxes to the Crown, they had to earn sterling, and the only way to do that was to produce an export commodity or labor for an English plantation. The 1872 Crown Lands Ordinance seized the family lands of the Garifuna and the Maya and established reservations. Nonetheless, Belize, with its relatively stable system of British control, became a sanctuary for Mayan and Garifuna populations fleeing war zones in southern Mexico and Guatemala.

By the end of the 19th century, the ethnic pattern that has remained largely intact to the present was in place: Protestants largely of African descent, who spoke either English or Creole and have clustered in Belize City; Roman Catholic Maya and Mestizos who speak Spanish and Mayan and live chiefly in the highlands; and Roman Catholic Garifuna who speak Creole English, Spanish, or a native dialect and live on the coasts or inland at Stann Creek. Sprinkle into this some Protestant Mennonite clans and a wave of recent Asian immigrants and you get the modern mix of Belize. In Punta Gorda you can get by on any of four languages and most people speak them all. 
As rich as this cultural diversity is (and wasn’t that also a reputed source of the wealth and innovation of USAnians?) the country is still enslaved. Large plantations — citrus, habanero, rice, banana — dominate the agricultural economy. Rather than learning from the Mayans, who still grow mixed age, mixed species tree and understory crops, albeit with an unhealthy dose of annual maize for sale to pay taxes, the Mennonites and Asians arrive with the same methods, tractors, and chemicals that the British brought in earlier. Instead of food security, what is being harvested is food insecurity. A drop in the price of maize or rice, a banana blight, or just a financial collapse that takes out the local banks, ruins people and more children die.
As we reached the dory landing in San Pedro Columbia we happened upon some village boys playing a game they had devised using an old tire and a football. One boy rolls the tire down the hill, another boy catches it, a third tries to throw a football through the tire hole at the moment of greatest speed or bounce. Then the boy who got to toss has to push the tire back up for the next thrower. This is low cost entertainment, and more exercise than an X-Box.
PDC students Reginia (Humana People to People) and Raneesha (Plenty) learn to swale
Belize is a tropical paradise, and its people should be some of the happiest and healthiest on the planet. That they are not thriving is through no obvious cause, such as indolence, alcohol or bad education. They are not thriving because they are wedded to a food production system that is destroying their underlying wealth, and they are suffering the consequences of that system and its financial prerequisites. Voting UDP or PUP won’t change that, the parties are just there for entertainment. Both UDP and PUP advocate staying with the program. So do the government agencies, schools, churches and most aid agencies. 
This is why the work being done by groups like Plenty Belize, Humana, and the Maya Mountain Research Farm are so important. If children and young people can learn the difference between living nature’s way versus fighting her each step of the way, Belize could prosper the way it is meant to.
Mark’s Serre
Serves 2
In Belize coconut oil and coconut milk are ubiquitous ingredients in both Belizean Kriol/Creole and Garifuna cuisine. Coconut adds flavor to stew beans and rice, often accompanied by the rich umami of pigtail. Coconut oil and milk may help explain how life expectancy at birth, despite the obstacles, is 66.5 years for men and 70 for women. The oil is used to fry everything from plantain chips to fish and chicken. Crab soup, conch soup and fish serre are the coconut equivalent of a cream-filled chowder; rich, tasty and filling, without cholesterol.
Fish: about 2 pounds of mackerel, barracuda, culibri, any firm fleshed fish, steaked or cut into other bowl sized pieces.  
Coco yam about 1 lb (or dasheen or taro root, found in most well stocked produce sections, in the "exotics" section. Ask your grocer, or substitute potatoes if you absolutely have to)  
Cassava root about 1 lb (again, most well stocked produce sections in a grocery store will have this around.)  
Onion (about two medium, finely diced)
Bell pepper (about two medium, finely diced) 

1 can (2 cups if fresh) Coconut milk
Water (normally not listed as an ingredient, but you need good water here)
Garlic (plenty, finely minced)
Black pepper (fresh ground, to taste)


1. Peel cassava and coco yams (collectively known as ground-food in Belize because they come from the ground), cut into big chunks. The brown skin of the cassava will come off along with a white thin layer of underlying flesh. Finally chop onion, bell pepper. Crush black pepper, salt. Cook all vegetables and ground food in a pot with coconut milk, plenty of minced garlic, pepper, a little cumin, salt and enough water to completely cover the food. Cook until tender. Add minced cilantro to taste. People often include breadfruit, ripe plantain or green plantain fu-fu (cooked mashed green plantain dumplings) in this stage of the serre.
2. Once fish is cut into steaks or pieces, fry until browned in a little coconut oil.  
3. Place fish in pot, on top of the stew of tender ground-food and vegetables, simmer until fish is done. This won't take long, test with a fork if need be.  
4. Serve with pepper/onion sauce.  

Pepper or Onion sauce: 

This is an essential accompaniment to the Serre. The acidity of the lime and vinegar and the heat of the habanero cut the richness of the coconut milk and create a perfect balance of flavor. Whether you call it pepper or onion sauce depends on the ratio of onion to habanero. Go with what works best for your taste buds and heat preference.   

Habanero pepper
Lime juice


Mince an onion and add to taste a quantity of finely minced habanero pepper. Remove the seeds and white internal membrane if you want to tone down the heat even more. Add minced cilantro, lime juice, vinegar and salt to taste. Some people like more vinegar, some like more lime juice. Experiment and see which you prefer. Let the whole concoction sit in a glass container. You can leave it covered on the counter for several weeks and it will stay perfectly fresh as the onion and pepper pickle themselves in the lime juice and vinegar. Serve with Serre and other heavy stews, with refried beans at breakfast, on top of guacamole or anytime you need some hot pepper flavor. 




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