Friday, November 23, 2012

Cuba: In it for the Long Haul

"A Cuban woman told us,  “You cannot understate how hard life was in the Special Period – people died; it left scars.” Cubans keep going, keep resisting, in part because surrender is not in their vocabulary, and in part because they have no other choice. They are a reluctant global model for powerdown economics."

We have recently returned from the annual Local Future conference in Michigan, where we gave a talk on our recent travel to Cuba.

Attending conferences on peak oil, resilience and sustainability and speaking about the decline and fall of the former Soviet Union and its client states, one must necessarily acknowledge trailblazers Dmitry Orlov, Faith Morgan and Megan Quinn Bachman. We are neither as brilliant nor as witty as they are, but we need to underscore a point.

We began our Michigan talk by relating the sordid history of the Admiral of the Ocean Seas, Cristobal Colon. Owing to both his navigation and administration skills the indigenous population of the Caribbean was decimated in 20 years, then decimated again. Cuba became a center of the African slave trade, a sugar and cotton monoculture that lost both its peoples and its soils. Colon so unwisely slaughtered the natives who fed his troops, that large numbers of his troops died of malnutrition. He himself died of intestinal parasites.

Cuba was the last Latin American country to achieve its independence. Its revolutionary hero, Jose Martí, is not only a familiar face on sculptures throughout the country; he is an immortalized presence in the hearts of the Cuban people. In one particular statue, directly across from the US Consulate, Martí strikes a pose of authority and warning, wagging his index finger at the Janques.

Cubans were fond of the US a century ago, because in 1898, an all-volunteer militia of 1000 Rough Riders came over from Tampa. A quarter of them died of malaria and yellow fever but after a brief campaign they threw the Spanish out of Cuba. Teddy Roosevelt’s famous cavalry charge up San Juan hill may have been motivated by imperialism borne on jingoistic sentiments following the false flag sinking of the Maine, but Cuba soon gained its independence.

The US, with Roosevelt as President, threatened annexation and then decided it would be better to let Cuba dangle like Haiti, as an economic colony, without the messy business of governance. The US took a 99-year lease on the Naval coaling station at Guantanamo Bay, signed in 1903. Today you know of it as the location of ... yes, that’s right, the only McDonalds in Cuba. So, Cuba became Haiti’s poorer cousin. The disparity between the rich in Havana and the poor in the rural countryside was extreme.
  • 75% of rural dwellings were huts made from palm trees.
  • More than 50% had no toilets of any kind.
  • 85% had no inside running water.
  • 91% had no electricity.
  • There was only 1 doctor per 2,000 people in rural areas.
  • More than one-third of the rural population had intestinal parasites.
  • Only 4% of Cuban peasants ate meat regularly; only 1% ate fish, less than 2% eggs, 3% bread, 11% milk; none ate green vegetables.
  • The average annual income among peasants was $91 (1956), less than 1/3 of the national income per person.
  • 45% of the rural population was illiterate; 44% had never attended a school.
  • 25% of the labor force was chronically unemployed.
  • 1 million people were illiterate ( in a population of about 5.5 million).
  • 27% of urban children, not to speak of 61% of rural children, were not attending school.
  • Racial discrimination was widespread.
  • The public school system had deteriorated badly.
  • Corruption was endemic; anyone could be bought, from a Supreme Court judge to a cop.
  • Police brutality and torture were common.

Colonial rule continued up through the 1950s, with Eisenhower backing the military coup led by Batista. Then came the revolution, led by students – and charismatics like Fidel and Che. Batista’s mistake was to let the rebels out of jail. They went to Mexico, organized & trained, and returned in 1956, but 65 of the 82 were killed outright or captured and tortured to death. The remaining 17, including Fidel, Raoul and Che, built an army and won by popular uprising uprising in just 3 years at the loss of 5,000 souls.

The revolution caught Eisenhower’s CIA by surprise, but JFK and RFK determined to reverse it in Kennedy’s first term – with Operation Mongoose. Similar to other stupid moves around the planet — covert operations in places like Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, Argentina, the Congo, Indonesia — Mongoose had no concept of blowback. As in Pakistan and Afghanistan today, the White House and State Department took no recognition of what the people of a place want for themselves. It simply did not enter into the political calculus.

Then came the Missile Crisis that nearly incinerated the United States – 99 ICBMs were already in Cuban field command, could hit NYC, Washington and Chicago, were launch ready, and had CIA Mongoose teams striking at them on the ground with small arms. The Joint Chiefs nagged Kennedy and McNamara to mount a full invasion and said they were prepared to jump off the landing craft within 48 hours. Both sides massed Naval and Air forces and went on highest alert, with Russia’s senior command taking to hardened underground bunkers outside Moscow.

The US intelligence breakdown was total – the Kennedys clueless as to both Russian and Cuban military capabilities. The Cubans were fully prepared to repel the jerry-rigged invasion – it would have been more like Dunkirk than Bay of Pigs. If US Generals had resorted to tactical nukes, it would have forced Cuba to destroy staging cities, like Miami, Tallahassie and New Orleans.

JFK said to McNamara: in an invasion how many Cubans would be against us? Mac didn’t know. The answer should have been obvious. All of them. 

Khrushchev’s long telex that Sunday turned the tide – it elaborated the nuclear end game scenario in graphic detail. Kennedy sat in his rocker staring at the wall, then took the deal Khruschev offered him to save face. Ted Sorenson was called in to craft a public narrative.

Robert Kennedy sat down with Russian Ambassador Anotoly Dobrynin and said, “Even though the President himself is very much against starting a war over Cuba, an irreversible chain of events could occur against his will. That is why the President is appealing directly to Chairman Khrushchev for his help in liquidating this conflict. If the situation continues much longer, the President is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power. The American army could get out of control.” In the end the US took missiles out of Turkey, Khrushchev increased aid to Cuba, and Cuba became most rapidly developing country in Latin America. Whether the US military went “out of control” and installed a different president is a matter of continuing speculation.

Fast forward 30 years and the USSR was imploding for many reasons. If you ask someone knowledgeable in Cuba (and we did) they’d say it was the loss of political support in Moscow. Gorbachev was back-to-the-wall after the Chernobyl mishandling. The same is now happening at Fukushima, with the Prime Minister dissolving the current Japanese government. It used to be “one nuclear weapon, one city.” Now it is “one nuclear reactor, one country.”

Why did the USSR collapse?
a. Peak Oil
b. Star Wars
c. Raisa Gorbachev’s Harrod’s Account
d. Chernobyl
e. Beastie Boys, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails
f. Afghanistan
g. All of the above

When the State farms closed, the food supply evaporated. The Army was stuck in mire in Afghanistan. The Ruble devalued. Consumer goods vanished, the underground economy ramped up, the mafia moved in, everyone had to pay for protection, and the oligarchs grabbed the best state assets, like oil companies, mining and manufacturing. As the country collapsed, the oligarchs met in Rotary Club luncheons and divided up the spoils. They got posh suites in London and New York while the masses starved.

Alcoholism skyrocketed, people froze to death, or let their grandparents die to get their food rations. Pop culture and higher education was demanding free flow of information, and liberalization was the slippery slope. As Dmitry Orlov says in Hold Your Applause, you can fake a Star Wars shield, but you can’t fake an American Express account.

We visited Russia in 1991-93, invited there to teach permaculture and ecovillage design. We did public events in St. Petersburg and other places, some short courses, and site visits to ecovillages. The first thing we noticed was the lack of traffic. There were few cars, even at rush hour. Cars were not in short supply, but there was no gas. People queued up not knowing if gas would arrive at their filling station that day or the next, or maybe on the third day. This was not a natural disaster, this was normal.

We stayed with a doctor, a heart surgeon, and she was paid 600 rubles/month — about $20 in 1991 and about 15 cents in 1993. Many people sold heirlooms, carpets, art, jewelry, to buy food. Because of socialist land tenure, they were able to keep their homes even when they stopped paying rent, unless the landlord was Mafia, and then they had to pay. Health care was also free.

But when the State farms closed, the food supply evaporated. People rented a little land outside the city and went there on weekends to grow food. These “dachas” were very common, usually close to public transport, and you could build hoophouses, rainwater catchment, and a lockable shed to store seed and tools. Many farms were within bike distance of city, others accessible by bus or rail.

The black market was out in the open. Kiosks had stuff. Stores did not. “Powdered milk, powdered eggs, baby powder ... what a country!” to steal a line from Yakov Smirnoff. Pepsi and Coke were some of the first in, trying to establish their brands. PepsiCo deployed a complimentary currency to avert inflation. As the exclusive exporter of Solichnaya, vodka went West, Pepsi went East.

As we learned in the documentary film, The Power of Community, almost overnight Cuba, one of the most rapidly industrializing nations in Latin America, lost its Soviet and Eastern European markets, and 50% of its imported oil. Its GDP dropped by a third. There were massive blackouts throughout the country. There were times when Cubans only had a few hours a day of electricity for cooking, lighting, and appliances.

We returned to Cuba for a look around earlier this month. Things are better now, but the first thing we noticed on arriving was how dark this capital city was. There were few lights away from the tourist areas — even the Capitol Dome was not illuminated. None of the office buildings had lights on the upper floors.

Havana is odd in many ways. The old 50s cars, the hand-made trike taxis, the Spike Lee scenes of old Brooklyn neighborhoods — men and boys without shirts, boys running pizza, girls strutting their stuff. A loaded pizza costs $3, a slice is 30 cents.

Vintage 1950s cars go for $3000 to $7000 but need parts. Motorcycles with sidecars are common. Black market diesel is 30 cents/liter, about $1/gal — so all the taxis are diesel, and they jam in as many passengers as they can.

The absence of wares in the stores, the scant window displays, the street hawkers selling tin pots, brooms and hangers as they sing down one street and up the next speak of continuing poverty. In order to survive, Cuba went from large scale, oil-intensive, chemical-industrial production, to small scale, local, organic agriculture. Petroleum-based food transportation from countryside to cities was replaced with urban gardening, which continues to spread. Cuba has a Department of Urban Agriculture.

Out on the street one thing you won’t see is iPads or smart phones. No one has ear buds. We went to the Iberostar Hotel business center to use the internet — $8 for one hour. In most businesses there are old computers, few printers, almost no toner. A printer which would cost $50 in the US sells for $800 there. Our guest house used an old computer to track sales, but had neither printer nor internet. We paid 300 pesos ($13) for a double room and were the only guests.

While Russia has largely recovered and is now building new stuff, very little in Cuba is new stuff. Much is still lost in the 1950s, and gradually decaying. The government spent money to preserve Havana’s scenic old town, which is an old Spanish colonial city like Palma de Mallorca, the Coyocan district of Mexico City, or Valladolid in the Yucatan: cobblestone streets, ornate facades, wrought iron. Many people are travelling to Havana for medical care — lots of new private hospitals and clinics. Canadians are buying winter vacation properties. Homosexuals and sex workers have been decriminalized, which makes sense if you are trying to build an economy on tourism.

Raoul Castro
Raoul Castro was just re-elected as President with an overwhelming mandate. He has been gradually liberalizing — Gorbachev’s slippery slope. This year he removed travel restrictions. No exit visas are required. Foreign students can go to university in Cuba — about $5000 for 4 years. Other countries are setting up university extensions.

You can get lodging much cheaper than at big tourist hotels. People rent rooms in their homes. There are air conditioners on some old buildings but the locals call them “Russian tanks” because of the noise. They are inefficient, hard to repair, and too expensive for most people.

The clothing is not very different than in the North, and we saw this in Russia in the 90s also. People want to keep up with fashions, but name-brand tennis shoes cost more than a year’s wage, so fashion comes with a steep cost.

We bought a peanut butter bar for 3 cuban pesos -- about 15 cents. It was practically a full meal. In the local slang they call centavos kilos, so the peanut butter bar was 300 kilos. A local orange soda is 10 pesos, about 50 cents. The standard food, as in much of the Caribbean, is beans and rice. In Cuba they call these Christians and Moors. Sometimes you can get fried boiled yucca with it. A meal like that would be 5 pesos, about 25 cents.

A lot of places — restaurants and hotels in particular, work on commissions, meaning if someone brings customers, they get a commission from the business. In the case of a restaurant or bar it could be one third of the bill. This is how lots of taxi drivers make their money.

Mostly people walk. At night many streets are almost completely dark, but there is very little crime. One reason is that there are plenty of “eyes on the street.” The people are engaged in their communities. They have neighborhood pride.

With a long history of foreign domination and control, the Cuban people maintain firm resolve to create their own destiny. “Resistir” is a value and ideal in Cuban society.

Living under a 50-year U.S. blockade has been the ultimate test of the ability of the Cuban people to resist. This is why Fidel and Raoul were confirmed by the Cuban people in the most recent election by 97%. It was not because the opposition was repressed or the voters were compelled, as the US media would have it. People came out to vote their confidence in the Revolution.

Cubans have overcome the way the NAACP overcame in Selma. With pride and spirit that is heartwarming. They make the necessary sacrifices, working even harder, and employing their creative and ingenious talents.

But the fruit stands we saw were quite sparse. We saw peeled oranges being sold by the slice. Good coffee is 25 times more expensive than bad coffee, the kind they call “chichiro.” Chichiro will make you sick if you are not used to it, because it is green bean — ground but unroasted.

In the west we are learning to recycle. In Cuba they have been recycling everything for half a century, but not because it is a government policy. Recycling happens because no one can afford to waste anything. Plastic bags are saved to raise and lower deliveries from the street to the 4th floor of a building by rope, or to carry tools on a bicycle.

One other thing stands out in Cuba to even the most casual tourist. The arts are everywhere. While the consumer economy has been on indefinite pause, the quality of life is everywhere enhanced by music, dance, theater, and visual arts.

A Cuban woman told us,  “You cannot understate how hard life was in the Special Period – people died; it left scars.” Cubans keep going, keep resisting, in part because surrender is not in their vocabulary, and in part because they have no other choice. They are a reluctant global model for powerdown economics.

In March 2007, Dr. Francois Cellier of the Swiss Fed. Inst. of Technology in Zurich spoke at the Annual Meeting of the Alliance for Global Sustainability. Dr. Cellier examined the work by Rees and Wackernagle on Global Footprint Analysis, Meadows and co-workers on Limits to Growth, and efforts by Daly, Costanza and others to create alternative economic indicators, such as Gross National Happiness or the Human Development Index.

Plotting a chart with the planet’s carrying capacity on one axis and minimum standard of living for higher civilization on another, Cellier observed that only one country occupied a sweet spot that had both: Cuba. Cellier urged that every country needs to get below the horizonal and to the right of the vertical and into that same sweet spot.

But in another slide, Cellier warned that, given the choice, most Cubans would elect to have large, air conditioned houses and drive gas-guzzling SUVs. Human nature had not changed, only the range of available choices.

In this respect we have to acknowledge a degree of weariness ourselves. We have personally adhered to a posture of preparedness for collapse for more than 40 years and we are frankly both tired of it and mystified that no collapse has ensued. No doubt, our chosen lifestyle has had its ineffable benefits over consumerist lifestyles, and we would have chosen no differently, given a second chance with acquired knowledge. But swimming against the tide can be fatiguing, even discouraging.

Ché’s famous saying, “Hasta la victoria siempre,” Until Victory Always, or “Sí se puede.” “Yes, it can be done,” are acknowledgements of an essential Buddhist truth: suffering cannot be avoided. In chosing to pioneer a way forward into a very different future, we may as well choose a form of suffering that gives us pride and dignity.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Expecting the Unexpected

"As we settle in now for another four years with President Obama and, probably, very little action on climate change, peak everything, or crucial preparations of an oblivious human population for a very different future than most expect, we can only wonder whether the hurricane that struck New York and the East Coast this past week, after slamming through Haiti, will be a (late) wake up call for the President and Congress or just another milepost whizzing by. "

The fisherman throwing his discards to the gulls under a red orange sky at sunset with flamingoes still wading just off shore in brilliant turquoise waters in the background makes this place seem like a Jimmy Buffet license plate.

We are back in Mexico, revisiting old haunts. A few years ago we asked Richard Heinberg what he thought about jetting around the world to speak at various events, and he said he thought now was a good time to be doing that; as world explorers and messengers we should travel as much as we could; the day will soon enough come when air travel will be too expensive or even unavailable at any price.

In solemn atonements (our planting ceremony runs something like, “Grow, ya bugger!”) we plant trees  and bamboo groves for our travel indulgences, and make biochar from the coppicings. Last year we were in eight countries; next year we already have speaking engagements in ten. We might have taken the advice a bit too seriously.

In the fall of 2005, we were at this same location in Southern Mexico, clutching the book contract to write The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook for New Society Publishers, its ink still wet. After searching about, we spent part of our advance to take lodgings in a sweet little grass shack on a beach off the Straits of Cuba. Our perfect book-writing retreat was in a rustic, dirt-road town with one internet café and almost no-one who spoke English.

That October we had gone back to Tennessee to tie up some business before hunkering down in Mexico for the winter, sheaves of research in hand. Then the unexpected.

On October 19, Caribbean breezes kicked up to Tropical Storm strength along the Southern coast of Mexico. Tropical Depression number 24 had formed four days before, 85 miles SW of Jamaica, and had organized with unprecedented speed. On Monday it tied a record of 1933 by becoming the 21st named storm of the Atlantic season. The name it was given was “Wilma.” By Wednesday it had become the 12th hurricane of the year and had set another record: at 5 pm that day its pressure was recorded at 892 millibars. It had become the strongest hurricane in history. If there were Category 5 hurricanes, Wilma might have been a Cat 5.

The flight back to Mexico had been cancelled. The airlines were sending their aircraft only one way – outbound, jam-packed with evacuating tourists. Wilma made landfall at noon on Friday, crossing Cozumel and moving into the Yucatan Peninsula. The impact weakened it to a Category 3, but it also stalled its forward motion, so the giant storm just lingered, pounding Cancun and the Riviera Maya through Saturday. The National Hurricane Center said it was “meandering,” then “drifting northward,” then “erratically drifting.” Hurricane force winds persisted over land for 24 hours, then 48. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, Wilma drifted Northeastward into the Gulf of Mexico, passing directly over my palm-leaf shack, with sustained winds of 115 mph.

On Monday Wilma slammed Palm Beach, Florida as a Cat 3 storm with winds at 125 mph, but it was moving so fast – 50 mph – that it crossed Florida in just 2 hours and headed North into the Atlantic. On Tuesday it dissipated, 200 miles Southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Mexico is extraordinary when it comes to disaster preparedness, but Wilma left six dead — one of them a body washed ashore from Cuba — and devastation in our small town was total. The entire village went under 3 feet of churning water for a day or more. Eighteen-foot breakers had pounded shore-front properties to rubble. But, thanks to military-enforced evacuation of the entire coast, people were mostly unharmed and were soon able to return.

As soon as the airport reopened, we flew down to see what had become of our advance book royalty. It was not a pretty sight.

What was pretty, though, were the ways that people came together to assist one another in the clean-up and rebuilding. It would be another month or more before power and water would return, and the internet café was now a sandy pile of soggy CPUs and broken plastic terminals, but with a deadline to meet, we began writing our Survival Guide with a folding solar array, a motorcycle battery, and a set of cables that could charge the iBook during the day. We got hot water from a solar shower bag and baked some quesadillas with a solar oven.

Our roof, surprisingly enough, was entirely intact, its palm thatch rising and falling in respiration with its tormenter. It is still in fine shape now, 7 years later. Where the rushing seas, in their retreat to the Caribbean, undercut our little home’s foundations and caused the walls to crack and collapse, we excavated down and poured fresh cement. The government came with trucks and gave away free construction materials. All over the Yucatan there were piles of sand, bags of cement, steel rod, and concrete block piled neatly in front of every damaged home. 

At night, with no power for televisions or computers, the village would assemble in the central plaza with guitars, fiddles, and flutes. A generator would light the park. We would dance and sing and laugh and tell jokes.

Within a year, we could hardly tell that any storm had come through, so complete were the repairs.

We wrote this chapter in our book in those months:

“Preparing for peak oil can be relatively easy, since the preparation is 75 percent mental, 15 percent physical, and 10 percent fiscal. Don’t be flabbergasted at what to do. Quit asking should I buy solar? Should I buy an axe? Should I buy a gun? The answers are no, no, and no …. This feeling of a need to buy stuff is in fact the very reason why we have this predicament. We over-consume. The preparation problem is not addressed by buying more stuff; it’s addressed by mentally and physically getting used to the idea of getting by on less stuff.” — Chris Lisle

Sometimes it is comforting to recall that life before Colonel Drake discovered that well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, was not without creature comforts. Blacksmiths under spreading chestnut trees worked on steam-electric “horseless carriages.” Trains and horse-drawn wagons brought fresh food from distant farms. The most daring folks even tottered around on the penny-farthing bicycle. Many of the jobs people had then were not so different from jobs today. Some would be greatly enhanced by the tools we have developed in the past century.

In many other ways, the world is a very different place. The first big change is global warming. Our burgeoning population has added significant amounts of greenhouse gases to the air, and we know from the fossil record that every time atmospheric carbon has risen, so have global temperatures. We have now nearly doubled CO2 concentrations that existed at the start of the industrial era, and reliable science suggests it will take thousands, possibly millions, of years for natural processes to bring us back to pre-industrial equilibrium. In the near term — the next century or two — the world is going to get warmer. Much warmer.

The areas first noticeably affected by this warming will likely be in the mid-continental regions, where drier soil conditions will prevail, droughts will occur more frequently, and desertification will be a serious threat. Next will be coastal areas, where sea-level rise, increased rainfall, and storm activity will submerge entire islands and permanently alter the shape of continents. These changes will be most profound at the higher latitudes, but no part of the Earth will be spared completely.


Global warming is not the only ticking time bomb. For 50 years, the nuclear industry has routinely been receiving permits to dump radioactive wastes into the air and water even though British, French, Dutch, Russian, and other governments are well aware of the lethal consequences to future generations. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission expects 1.7 million cancer and genetic deaths in the world population from current US-based plants alone.

At least the nuclear industry has watchdog agencies, even if their historic role has been more like that of lapdogs. The level of regulation in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries is far more lackadaisical. Thousands of chemical and pharmaceutical dumpsites are leaching toxic compounds into the environment without anyone seeming to notice. Rivers, oceans, and atmosphere have been treated as a vast open sewer, and the damage to human and ecosystem health is only beginning.


So this is where we find ourselves. We have spent the past hundred or so years at a huge party thrown by petroleum. Our host has spared no expense and has lavished wonderful gifts upon us, and we are surely grateful. Some of the gifts we have used wisely and some we have wasted. The party has been going on for so long that most people, although tired, have the sense that it’s a permanent thing — that we can go home and go to bed and come back again tomorrow and it will still be here.


It’s nearly over now. The band is packing up. Tomorrow we have the big cleanup.

As we settle in now for another four years with President Obama and, probably, very little action on climate change, peak everything, or crucial preparations of an oblivious human population for a very different future than most expect, we can only wonder whether the hurricane that struck New York and the East Coast this past week, after slamming through Haiti, will be a (late) wake up call for the President and Congress or just another milepost whizzing by. Only time will tell. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Goodbye Columbus

" We are proposing a return to the cultivated ecologies that existed in the Americas before the Columbian Encounter. We are pushing back now. For the past 500 years we here in the West have tried that Eastern agricultural model. Now we would like for the Eastern Hemisphere to give ours a try."

Forest gardening is about as close as any strategy comes to addressing all of the most pressing needs of humans in one great sweep. Climate change, peak oil, poverty, extinction, and civil strife — all are rooted in the ground, and in most cases, those roots belong to trees.

Our nine-day EdibleForest Garden Design Intensive with David Jacke started last Friday with 23 participants from Canada, Honduras, Haiti/Albania, Tennessee, Alabama, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Virginia, Indiana, Texas, Iowa, and Florida. 

In our 2010 book, The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change (New Society Publishers), we described the relationship between the two main styles of agriculture that existed at the start of the Columbian Encounter (1492) and the two distinct types of civilization each tended to produce.

A.Eisenstaedt, Oklahoma Farmer 1942, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
In the Eastern Hemisphere humans marked the dawn of agriculture by their discovery of two great inventions: irrigation and the plow. Those began, we think, in the richest lowland river valleys — the Tigris and Euphrates; Nile delta; and Yellow River and radiated outwards. Because annual flooding erases boundaries, the ancients invented surveying instruments and sophisticated ownership systems for property.

Too much of any good thing is bad, we know. In this case fertile points of origin were plowed and irrigated until they salted into deserts. Capitalism, socialism, militarism and theocracy were attempts to adapt to the boom and bust cycles of that kind of agriculture, and to predations that pair with property, food stores, and aggregations of artificial markers for wealth. Abundance and scarcity; scarcity and abundance — these beget hoarding; snatch-and-run; entrenchment and defense.

In the Western Hemisphere (although we admit to speaking in broad generalizations and quickly acknowledge that examples of opposites appear on both sides of the oceans) a second strategy dominated. Daniel Quinn (author Ishmael and its sequels) has termed this the “Leaver” culture. It is characterized by discovery of cooperative strategies that compliment, rather than compete, with nature and the directions she appears to be following. Natives of the Americas developed highly complex cultivated ecologies. Prairies were managed by fire for buffalo and elk. Forests were managed for deer, beaver and large fowl. While some food preservation was practiced, and many domesticated cultivars were grown (notably maize, potatoes, beans, and squash), much of the Western diet came from seasonal forage, even in city-state cultures like Incan Peru and Mayan Mesoamerica.

In the Americas, field and forest management strategies were typically soil building, game conserving and water protecting. To the East, urban commerce and military conquest tended towards exploitation, mining, and resource extinction.

In the Americas, soil nutrients were consumed at or close to their places of origin and the residues returned back to resume the cycle again. In the East, an “export economy” arose almost immediately, with Sumer, Ur, Babylon, Egypt, Macedonia, Greece and Rome, and trade routes carried vital soil nutrients to great distances where they filled sewers to be carried off into oceans. While both cultures recognized at a deep level that maintaining a positive balance with nature was absolutely essential to survival, one of them failed to recognize that many seemingly wonderful social inventions were antithetical to that goal.

When the two styles finally met, it was catastrophic almost beyond reckoning. The Europeans, armed with gunpowder brought West by trade with China on the Silk Road, and with Andalusian war horses bred by the Moors to escape Medieval Maximum warming in the Middle East, having been starved out of Europe, now flooded into North and South America with the intent to subdue and conquer all in their path. Estimates of the genocide of Native Americans range from 30 to 99.9 percent, far greater than the Black Plague or any other historic scourge. As we wrote in The Biochar Solution:
After the passing of the plagues, and the brutal conquest that ensued, those Native Americans who remained were reduced to a state of extreme poverty. Before European contact, the people of Amazonia cultivated or managed at least 138 of the 257 plant species cultivated in the Western Hemisphere. Two centuries later, they were reduced to farming only a handful.
Anthropologist Charles C. Mann says, “The pall of sorrow that engulfed the hemisphere was immeasurable. Languages, prayers, hopes, habits, and dreams — entire ways of life — hissed away like steam.”
When the civilizations of the Americas perished, with them perished the agricultural sciences gained from millennia of field trials. Countless valuable domestic cultivars, unable to self-propagate, went extinct. Where great shining cities had stood, vines and moss covered the façades; trees broke through the paving stones and engulfed buildings. Rain rotted away the roof timbers, and insects ate the parchment of scientific and literary manuscripts, leaving but a few to the bonfires of the conquerors.
So great was the burst of vegetation over open fields and mounded cities in the Western Hemisphere that the carbon drawn from the air to feed this greening upset atmospheric chemistry. Analysis of the soils and lake sediments at the sites of both pre-contact population centers and sparsely populated surrounding regions reveals that the reforestation of land following the collapse drew so much carbon out of the atmosphere so rapidly that Europe literally froze.
That period of global cooling, which was most intense from approximately 1500 to 1750, is known as the Little Ice Age. The Little Ice Age ended the Medieval Warming Period that corresponded to the time when the Amazon was not jungle, but tall white cities with many miles of wharf-front, wide causeways extending inland, and highly cultivated societies.

What we hope to do with these Edible Forest Design workshops, beyond improving the resiliency of our tiny rural community amidst a perfect storm of energetic decline, climate change, and ecological collapse, is to propagate a new meme. It really isn’t all that new, actually. It’s mostly just forgotten. We are proposing a return to the cultivated ecologies that existed in the Americas before the Columbian Encounter. We are pushing back now. For the past 500 years we here in the West have tried that Eastern agricultural model. Now we would like for the Eastern Hemisphere to give ours a try.

When we tried the one based on irrigation and the plow, we turned the Great Plains into a Dust Bowl. Franklin Roosevelt, may his name be praised, reversed that by sending the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant hundreds of miles of “tree alleys” North-South across the plains. His jobs program was long on ecological restoration, and lest we forget, it worked. Spectacularly.

Now we need to do that again, only on a grander scale. We need to use it to grow a food supply by agroforestry, and to sequester gigatons of carbon in the bargain. Who’s up for it? Will you join us?


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

This Revolution Will Be Televised

"History tells us that at key pivot points on the civilizational timeline, humanity’s zeitgeist is highly explosive and a tiny spark can be, well, revolutionary. There was no spark here, only fire-extinguishing foam. We found ourselves watching an extension of Lost."

Like many, we had our attention drawn by the promotional advertising for the new NBC series, Revolution, and downloaded the online pilot. Like most (judging from the #Revolution twitterstream every Monday night) we have been disappointed. History tells us that at key pivot points on the civilizational timeline, humanity’s zeitgeist is highly explosive and a tiny spark can be, well, revolutionary.

There was no spark here, only fire-extinguishing foam. We found ourselves watching an extension of Lost, one that even featured Lost actors Elizabeth Mitchell and Mark Pellegrino. It also had Breaking Bad’s drug kingpin Giancarlo Esposito in a bad guy role far below his abilities, milking it in a desparate audition for better roles than this.

Once there was an ambitious plan to build 1000 nuclear reactors in North America. Then came Three Mile Island. But was it the TMI meltdown or China Syndrome, the Jack Lemmon - Jane Fonda Hollywood film released while “an area the size of Pennsylvania” was being evacuated that did in the nuke? Our betting is on the latter: the power of media and celebrity to redirect a dominant cultural narrative.

Revolution carried that potential. The brains at Bad Robot and Warner Brothers Television made sure it didn’t come anywhere near. It was filmed on location at the Hard Rock Music Park in Myrtle Beach, SC, written and produced by Eric Kripke, whose previous credits include Boogeyman 1, 2, and 3, Ghostfacers, and 152 episodes of Supernatural for the CW channel. So, instead of some healthy post-petrol collapse advice, we can expect aliens, evil spirits, or shapeshifting demons from the netherworld to appear sooner or later. Maybe Esposito’s Captain Tom Neville is really a reptile.

Folks, the aliens are not coming to save you. Only you can save you.

From C-Realm Podcast Episode 328 (Sept 19, 2012):

KMO: Before I go, I want to play a clip from the new NBC series, Revolution. It sounds like it might hold some appeal for those interested in Peak Oil, transition, and collapse, right? I suppose it might, if you got good and baked before watching it and just took in the expensive post-collapse images in the first few minutes. Thereafter, if you've give half an hour's thought to potential collapse modes and their implications, this show will insult your intelligence at every turn.

It premiered on September 17th, the one-year anniversary of the start of Occupy Wall Street, but that seems to be a coincidence, as the show has nothing to do with opposition to unjust political power in the present. Instead, it introduces us to a handful of characters just prior to a global blackout and picks up 15 years later in a world that bears a strong resemblance to Kevin Costner's film adaptation of the David Brin novel, The Postman.

I plan to record a detailed conversation with Arik Roper in which I will detail all of the things that Revolution got wrong, but most of them come down to the fact that people on TV are very, very pretty, and their prettiness exemplifies the advantages we all enjoy due to electricity and being the master of so many mechanical servants.

The characters in Revolution obviously all still enjoy hot showers, a full range of cosmetics and body-care products. They all seem to have someone to wash their clothes for them, clean up after them, and allow them to live a life very similiar to the life we enjoy now, just without cars and smart phones. We all live better than emperors of old because we are attended night and day by a gaggle of energy slaves.

Revolution had the opportunity to depict what life would be like without those energy slaves, but instead, what we get is a depiction of a group of pampered idiots from today having a pretend adventure in a post-petroleum theme park.

The illustrations in this post were captioned by KMO for The Great Change

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bioenergy, TLUDs, and Our 2012 Stove Camp

"Both Solar Bob and Doc agree that trying to get charcoal-burning cultures like Haiti to give up making and burning charcoal is a lost cause, not worth spending much time on. We are less convinced of the hopelessness of conversion, having the card up our sleeve of eCOOLnomics still to play. Pop Culture can marry Mother Earth. We can make it cool to sequester carbon in the soil. "

Here at the Ecovillage Training Center we just completed our first, hopefully annual, Biochar Stove Camp. And a good time was had by all.

Dr TLUD demo's the Mwoto double chamber gasifier
These stove camps are the brainchild of Paul “Dr. T-LUD” Anderson, a retired geography professor who is spending his remaining active years enjoying as much geography as he can extend into. We, and “Solar Bob” Fairchild, whom Doc recruited to organize this camp, find ourselves kindred spirits in that way. We like to travel and exchange information, and we’re getting older.

Doc got interested in stoves doing mission work in Africa, and started attending stove camps in places like the Aprovecho Institute in Oregon, where he picked up on the gasifier design and its capabilities to produce biochar. Tom Reed, one of the early organizers of the International Biochar Initiative, interested him in the climate benefits of biochar. We saw him at Newcastle for the Biochar, Sustainability and Security in a Changing Climate conference in 2008 and at the U.S. Biochar Conference in Boulder, Colorado in 2010, showing off his namesake TLUD — “Top Loading UpDraft” — biochar-making stoves to, among others, the Secretary of Agriculture and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Doc just came back from Uganda where last spring he set up a project near Kampala to manufacture TChar stoves, a TLUD kit design he developed collaboratively in CHAB (“Combined Heat and Biochar”) camps such as ours. The Ugandan project is called Awamu Biomass Energy, or ABE for short. Awamu means “together” or “juntos” in Lugandan language. Awamu will set up a shop to cut, bend, drill and assemble the TChar, grow and harvest fuels and make hand-presses for biomass briquettes. It will then wholesale the stoves, presses and briquettes locally. If successful, Awamu would next expand to Bungoma, Kakamega and maybe Nyamira. 

Engineers Without Borders, Micro-Compound-Lever Press / Easy BioPress.
HAND PRESS: The press has a low build cost (about US$18), is easy to build using hand tools, is lightweight at 26 pounds and can create a force far in excess of that required to make a high quality briquette (typically in excess of 4,000 pounds). Briquettes can be produced at a rate of about twelve in ten minutes depending of type of mold used.

After Uganda Doc went to Kenya, then to Haiti, Honduras, back to the States for the Biochar Conference in Sonoma, Uganda again, and home to his Brazilian wife, Noeli, in Bloomfield, Illinois before packing his car with TChars, Toucans, Mwotos, and assorted other kits and tools, and heading here to Tennessee for Labor Day.

An engineer by training, Robert J. Fairchild went off to Ladakh in the early 80s and became one of the key staffers for Helena Norberg-Hodge’s International Society for Ecology and Culture. All over the Tibetian Plateau Solar Bob designed and built solar cookers, water systems, power systems, and home retrofits to save energy and fuel. When he came back and homesteaded near Berea KY, he bought and rebuilt an old hydropower dam. Today he sells into the Kentucky grid, and the system runs itself well enough to let him occasionally travel, installing solar energy systems in distant places (-- he installed our array here in 1995). He has spent the last 3 years working in Haiti with a group of missionaries from Nashville — building the first oil-drum rocket stove in a refugee camp that feeds 300 children daily — and went to Doc’s CHAB camp Massachusetts in 2011 to better understand what to do about charcoal. That’s where he first met Doc. Now he instructs the camps. He is just back from Haiti and has some new ideas he wants to try out having to do with heat exchangers.

Both Solar Bob and Doc agree that trying to get charcoal-burning cultures like Haiti to give up making and burning charcoal is a lost cause, not worth spending much time on. One of Doc’s stoves, designed specifically for Haiti, is a three-stage unit that makes charcoal in the top, gasifying, stage before burning it for cooking in the lower stage, rather like a machine that roasts and grinds coffee beans before steeping them into your cup.

The Whitfield Home Garden Biochar Pellet Stove, undergoing trials in 2012.
Of course, it would be better not to burn the charcoal but instead to grind it fine, run it through the compost pile and then get it into the garden, but that kind of use is a hard sell in Haiti.

We are less convinced of the hopelessness of conversion of charcoal cultures than are Doc and Bob, having the card up our sleeve of eCOOLnomics still to play. Pop Culture can marry Mother Earth. We can make it cool to sequester carbon in the soil.

It might be a long shot, but then considering the alternative is that places like Haiti and Africa become intolerably hot and dry and unable to support life, we think taking that gamble is warranted.

NikiAnne makes a TChar
The biofuels/agribusiness issue always crops up, to abuse a metaphor, but we are of the persuasion that whatever risks that agriculture-for-energy may hold, they are worth the risks if we can reverse climate change and get the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million carbon, or below, on decadal time scales. 

The challenge is that in the rural areas where biomass is available in abundance and can be collected at little or no cost, gasifying stoves are not affordable. Another challenge is having dry fuel in the rainy season. Unfortunately gasifiers are very sensitive to fuel moisture and do not handle fuel well unless it is less than 20% moisture. Making briquettes and pellets from dry grasses and biomass that if left alone would become greenhouse gases is a potential village enterprise that would be sustainable.

This stove charges your laptop off
a USB port that
derives electricity from a
bimetalic heat/cold current generator
We have no delusions about the potential of biofuels. It is hard to improve upon the renewable energy economies of the Greeks and the Romans even today — and they built empires on that kind of energy — but in the end Greek and Roman appetites for energy and consumer goods outgrew their empires’ abilities to enslave and deforest. Today populations are much larger, and better armed, and empires are again running out of far away places to enslave and deforest. They are having to do it at home to their own people and forests.

Part of the prescription for backflow in the carbon cycle is reforestation and afforestation, taking back fields converted to farms and suburbs and returning them to mixed-age, mixed-species food forests. (Other parts of the prescription include biochar, holistic management, mob grazing, keyline, organic no-till, and painting the built environment white or silver). We will hone in on this notion at our next workshop here at the Ecovillage Training Center, Building Food Forests for the 21st Century.

It is our strategy to build a permaculture army to turn this into a garden planet, using ecological services to meet all of our needs, while returning our Mother to the comfortable climate of the Holocene.

The Food Forest workshop starts September 23, runs to October 7, and places are still available. And for those who are in the Northeast, Albert Bates will be appearing on stage each day of the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania from September 21 to 23. 

They are giving away conservation heirloom chicken brood starters as a door prize. Won’t you join us?




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