Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Fickle Fates

Vowell's theme — brash adventures of a rich French teenager that profoundly changed history — reminds us how fragile the course of our common future is, and how that mere fact permits hope in an otherwise hopeless time.

The teenage brain — skirting risk in search of greater dopamine
Between ages 15 and 25, a juvenile male's brain is still underdeveloped in some key regions. Adolescents don't "see" barriers and limitations the way adults do. Thinking outside the box is the rule, not the exception. Challenging supposed limits is the essence of the teenage mind.

The human brain nearly doubled in size about 3 million years ago. Another 50% was added some 300,000 years ago, bringing it to today's 1200-1400 ml size. Teenagers were the evolutionary solution to allow our wetware to reboot from the older, slower brain to the newer, bigger, faster brain. Do it in stages.

The Marquis de Lafayette by Joseph-Désiré Court
Réunion des musées nationaux

The final and most recent addition to our brains is the prefrontal cortex. It winds itself up, kicks into overdrive, and then settles back into stability in the teens and early 20s. The prefrontal cortex allows us to "time travel" as we consider the past, process the present, and contemplate possible trajectories in our future. It helps us plan, exercise judgement, control our impulses, organize and strategize.

Defending its turf, the older, impulsive limbic portion of the brain also increases its activity at this time, making teens act emotionally and spontaneously, without thinking through the consequences. Morbidity and mortality go up 300%. If you bore into the most frequent causes of teenage death, the entire top 10 are related to errors in judgement and making poor decisions.


Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton by Joshua Reynolds.
Tarleton was Lafayette's teen nemesis. Tasked
by Cornwallis to hunt the Marquis, he nearly
succeeded in capturing Thomas Jefferson instead.
In these years the brain shows an increase in dopamine in one small region called the nucleus accumbens, the same area that governs addictive behavior. Teen love is, in fact, a profound addiction that pumps the reward system of the brain. Rejection can be likened to going through withdrawal, with lasting consequences. The nucleus accumbens issues dopamine to the pleasure centers, and if it is not cranking up enough already, loud noises (or music), intoxicants, the presence of friends and surviving dangerous situations (especially with friends) can take it up a notch.

As we traveled to remote workshops in the Two-Thirds World these past five weeks, idle hours sitting in airports, planes and shuttles afforded us time to “read” a number of audiobooks, the best of which, hands-down, was Sarah Vowell's Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. The book was read mostly by the comedienne herself, a gifted voice actor (Violet in The Incredibles), with cameos by Fred Armisen (von Steuben), Bobby Cannavale (Franklin), John Hodgman (Adams), John Slattery (Lafayette), and Patton Oswalt (Jefferson), among others.

We love Vowell's sardonic style and always surprising interplay of serious history with banal bits of contemporary Americana. So, for instance, to her neighbor, who thought she was writing a book about Lafayette, Louisiana:


Washington and Rochambeau at Yorktown
Auguste Couder - in the Palais de Versailles
I explained that I meant Lafayette the French teenager who crossed the Atlantic on his own dime to volunteer to fight with George Washington in the Revolutionary War, therefore I was more likely to visit Pennsylvania, where he got shot. She nevertheless professed her fondness for zydeco.

This encounter aroused such indignation in my breast that I moralized upon the instability of human glory and the effervescence of many other things. No, wait, that's what Herman Melville did in 1870 when a random stranger in a cigar store had never heard of his Revolutionary War hero grandfather.

When I found out my old neighbor had never heard of my Revolutionary War hero protagonist I went and got a taco with my sister. Still, it does seem eerie how one day in 1824 two-thirds of the population of New York City was lining up to wave hello to Lafayette and nineteen decades go by and all that's left of his memory is the name of a Cajun college town.

However, Vowell's theme — brash adventures of a rich French teenager that profoundly changed history — reminds us how fragile the destiny of our common future still is, and how that mere fact permits hope in an otherwise hopeless time.

How quickly USAnians are ready to forget that had it not been for Lafayette, vonSteuben, and a handful of others who volunteered without pay, or even cast in their own fortunes to help the Revolution, Washington's brave but battered army would have been routed, collapsed, and disbanded by 1777, or 1780 at the latest.

Vowell shows us how the traits we can now ascribe to the teenage brain striving to manufacture more dopamine were easy to spot in the young Marquis — in his reckless escape and transatlantic crossing, puppy love for George Washington, irrepressible quest for glory, and fondness for loud cannonades. We can also watch him mature into a cautious, strategic thinker, able to apply his inside knowledge and powers of persuasion to seize and embolden the hearts of others. He is Amy Winehouse in a tricorner hat and spurs.

With a closer reading of history, one can readily appreciate the American Revolutionary War for what it represented militarily: an astonishing feat of legerdemain carried out by the French Royal Navy — Expédition Particulière — with the navies of Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Cuba in close support.


The Battle of the Chesapeake, V. Zveg (US Navy employee)
US Navy Naval History and Heritage Museum
Few today are taught in school that there were no American observers on hand to witness the epic Battle of the Capes that sealed the fate of General Charles, Earl Cornwallis,' army at Yorktown, or that in that final and decisive land battle against the superior English Empire, the well-equipped and trained French sailors and marines greatly outnumbered the bedraggled and bloodied Colonials standing behind a line of artillery supplied by French ships and directed by Lafayette.

As Vowell documents in her inimitable style, the Continental Congress was never more than an embarrassment to the Revolution and it was much more a tireless diplomacy by Franklin and Lafayette that tipped the balance with the French king, his generals and admirals, sparing North America and Europe an entirely different fate.

Had England triumphed, slavery might have ended much sooner and without a Civil War, women would have gained suffrage in the Eastern States almost as quickly as their Mormon sisters in the West, and perhaps far fewer First Nations would have been genocidally exterminated. But consider what might have happened to Europe once George III cemented his hold on the men and material of these United States of England. Fortunately for France and the other countries of that continent, the British Parliament was as hamfisted and dysfunctional as its Colonial counterpart that gathered in York after being ousted from Philadelphia.

It was Lafayette's poignant letters to the French court and military commanders, spiced with a reality check that featured precisely those future scenarios of Anglo-hegemony that compelled Louis XVI to extend his neck (thence to be severed) to send men, ships and looted Spanish gold to aid the barefoot, starving, disconsolate and bleeding Colonial Army.



Surrender at Yorktown, October 19, 1781, by John Trumbull
Overruling Washington's reckless plan to storm New York, the cagey French instead sent their fleets up the Chesapeake where Lafayette had positioned John Knox's crackerjack Ticonderoga artillery regiment to trap and hold Cornwallis and then batter him into submission. Suffering a severe case of outmaneuver, the British Army, superior to Washington's in every other respect, was forced to furl colors, stack arms, and surrender.

Vowell uses the narrative to point out how the recklessness and fecklessness we saw when Texas teabagger Ted Cruz was able to tie up the budget process of the US Congress to close all the National Parks and squander billions of tax dollars to boot — is not a new concept, but rather the norm since before the country was founded. 
When not busy trying to undermine Washington's command or fleeing from Philadelphia, the Continental Congress went back to doing what they did best, which was fighting themselves. By the time the French intervened, the Colonial currency had become virtually worthless, public support for the war, about to enter its sixth year, was waning, and army troops were becoming mutinous over pay and conditions.

She also points out that the choice to toss blood and treasure as a lifeline to Lafayette's Americans was not without cost to Louis and others who went to the guillotine when the full extent of rash overspending came home to France as bankruptcy, starvation and disease, coinciding with several years of bad harvests, and the knee-jerk response of raising taxes.

It is small wonder then, that when Lafayette returned, having been released from prison, in 1824, 80,000 of New York's 120,000 citizens turned out at the docks to greet him, or that so many streets, towns, schools, racehorses and babies are named for him.

Heroism can take many forms. What the young Marquis de Lafayette demonstrated was that even a rash teenage brain, guided by adult logic to a potentially winning strategy, can apply heroic instincts where they will matter. Young souls as these can even change history.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Maginot Line: Permaculture Realized, Part III

"There's a problem with all utopian visions which is that sooner or later if you try to put them into practice you run into problems with the real world."

The following transcript, from an interview for Permaculture Realized podcast on February 2, 2016, has been lightly edited for corrections and readability.

Levi Meeuwenberg: How do you foresee some of these new approaches starting to be implemented and then get rolled out in the long term?

Albert Bates: If you're a country and you've just signed the agreement along with 195 other countries, the first thing you did to get to that was to come up with an INDC — which is your pledged national commitment — your contribution to reduce climate change. It was a promise. You had to make a pledge. So all the countries that came to Paris had already put in their INDCs and if you add up all the sum of the INDCs we still get to three degrees by mid-century, five to seven degrees by end of century. The ambition was way too low.

We knew that. But don’t fret — that was the opening bid. if you're in a poker game that was the ante. You had to put in that much to get in the game. Coming out of Paris what they put in was what they called “stocktake.” This is a new word for Webster’s. Stocktake is what's going to happen for various parts at three or five year intervals. There are a lot of attempts by oil-based economies like Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Malaysia, the ones who have coal and stuff, to have the stocktakes taken out but the stocktakes stayed in the treaty so the Paris agreement requires a revision at close intervals now. There is a science stocktake in 2018, and then the next big one for the pledge system is in 2020. The stocktake which will happen in 2018 will look at the 1.5 goal and see what kinds of INDC revisions would be necessary to get and hold global warming to 1.5 degrees C.

Dare I say? We probably already know the answer. If you know anything about climate science you know that 1.5 is already baked in the cake. There's no way that we're not going to go sailing right through a 1.5 degrees celsius increase in global temperature of the planet. We're on that trajectory and there are so many feedback mechanisms, so many positive forcings which are already in play that 1.5 is a done deal. To try to set such an ambitious goal is ignoring the science to begin with, but I'm fine with high ambition so, sure, set that goal. It's kind of like building the Maginot line. If you're familiar with the history of Europe after WWI the French, who had fought all that trench warfare with the Germans which was really nasty, said we're going to pre-build a defensive line of bunkers – cement, barbed wire, trenches and all that – and massive earthworks all around our border so that we can never have this trench warfare slaughter again. We're going to build this giant wall – kind of like Trump's wall with Mexico – around France.

What happened in the Blitz? Germany just flew right over and dropped paratroopers on the other side. The French Minister of War, André Maginot, was fighting the last war. The Wehrmacht had a responsive strategic design process. They laughed all the way to Paris.

What they're doing now is building a Maginot line on the climate and saying that they're going to hold the line at 1.5. Well, I've got news for you, we're already past 1.5. But that's o.k. because what they're doing in that process is education, an interactive education process. We understand that when we're talking about governments and making them change, they change all the time. There are elections and changes in government and you get crazies in and you get different kinds of things happening, two steps back and one step forward. That's just normal in government. Just look at the difference in Obama in the first term and Obama in the second term in terms of climate change. I think partly that's laid at the feet of John Holdren who's the White House Science Adviser who got to meet with Obama on a regular basis and educate him.

I think that in the future we're going to have the same problem of educating governments over and over again. The weather is doing a lot of that for us so we don't really have to worry that much. The underground cities they built on the Maginot Line might even be good examples for urban design in coming decades, as long as they are not on coasts. But the idea of changing the way we farm is going to have to involve a major shift away from Cargill, Monsanto, and the agro industry and the way things are done now.

How do you make a shift like that? Frankly, I see it through tools like permaculture, home gardens, victory gardens, urban gardens. People looking for food security in these turbulent times when the economy is doing really badly and there issues with energy and the absence of energy after the crash of the fracking industry. So we're going to find ourselves where everybody is going to want food security and to do that they're going to have to learn how and to do it in a way that sequesters carbon. If we can produce electricity using clever stoves and things which sequester carbon as well as boost nutrient density that way — that’s the revolution. That can happen worldwide and the seed for that revolution, the starter in the yogurt, is all these little permaculturists running around like a yogurt starter culture.

A lot of different strategies are around to try to deal with climate and I don't begrudge their particular strategy. I think all of them are needed and I think that one of the things that we are going to see in the future is the idea that Bill McKibben launched in Paris and afterward and we’ll see it coming from him, Naomi Klein, Greenpeace, and others, which is that the new standard is 1.5 degrees by mid-century.

So essentially, the international agreement is to go carbon negative in the second half of the 21st century, which is in the actual language of the treaty – which requires 196 countries to eliminate fossil fuels by around mid-century, maybe a little bit after. I think that the ratcheting process may speed it up because the more we learn about the science and the more weather events happen, the more incentive there will be to ratchet up.

But the slogan that Bill McKibben coined was 'every pipeline, every mine — you said 1.5' and I can hear that chant in the back of my head as companies try to send railcar loads of shale oil through cities or carve new strip mines in the mountains or open new fracked gas wells which have already been leased but have not been drilled: “Stop! Every pipeline, every mine, you said 1.5!”

From a science standpoint it's absolutely impossible to hold to the Paris limits if you open up new fossil fuel mines and pipelines. You cannot have any new ones. You cannot have any more. You should be starting to shut down the ones we have. That's the only way to get there. We saw a lot of Fortune 500 companies signing on to this whole notion of going carbon negative or at least carbon neutral. There were one hundred and fourteen companies that signed the science-based initiative of going completely neutral and several of them have already achieved that. That's actually a coalition between environmentalists and business that's happening so now it's up to the environmentalists to hold the feet of these people to the fire, including the governments. So the protests are completely justified.

I had trouble with a lot of protests earlier because I'm a student of Mahatma Gandhi. I read Mahatma Gandhi when I was a high school student. I read pretty much all of his writings when he was a newsletter editor and his various collected writings so I understood the principles of Satyagraha which is seeking truth through peaceful means. One of those principles is to give your opponent every possible opportunity to correct their actions peacefully before you do anything to obstruct them or otherwise cause them harm – economic harm, I'm not talking about physical harm. When Gandhi would plan a march he would notify the authorities – “here's where we're going to be, come and arrest us if you want” – and when he goes into court (and remember he began as a lawyer in South Africa) he asks the judge to give him the maximum possible sentence. “Let's just go ahead and dispense with the trial, I'm guilty, put me in jail for as long as you want.” That's Satyagraha.

Here we have every pipeline, every mine and the moral justification is now there. Everyone's on notice. Everyone has been notified. There is no excuse now. Everybody has already agreed in principle that this must be done – no new pipelines, no new mines. So I think it's completely within everyone's privilege and in fact their duty to oppose anything new in the way of getting fossil fuels out of the ground.

Levi: What are some of the most effective ways? Let's say that we know that there are existing frack wells nearby, which is the case, should we approach the company, should we approach the government, should we go through legal means, or should we just occupy the space? What approach would you say would be best for getting that message out?

AB: I'm not going to dictate local initiatives. I think that this should come from the locality and everybody can best judge in their own location what is the best strategy. I think it's a little more problematic when you're talking about existing structures because those have to be withdrawn in a gradual way so there's a certain amount of latitude that must be there. I understand that. On the other hand if there's a new one then I think that it's perfectly justified to block the well-drilling rigs. It's perfectly justified to oppose them at every stage. For instance, they have to get state permits in every state to go in and drill. They have to get state permits to use the roadways. They have to have NPDES permits which are pollution discharge permits. All of those are places of entry where citizens and groups can go and make statements at those meetings and even protest those meetings if the state decides to ignore the legal requirement. They're outlaws if they ignore the legal requirement.
What needs to happen is the elevation of general public awareness about what the law now says. We're talking about international law which is the supreme law of the land under the U.S. constitution.

Levi: I hear a lot of talk about renewable energy, solar and all that – maybe too much. People who don't have an understanding of permaculture solutions or more holistic solutions or soil solutions see renewable energy as solving everything in some way. How do you see that being part of the picture?

AB: I spent a lot of my book, The Paris Agreement, on this. I blogged for a year leading up to Paris and took all those blogs and wrote an introduction and did a daily blog while I was in Paris. Then I spent a week or two afterward summarizing, synthesizing, and putting it all together to make the book. I put the book out on December 19th which was seven days after the Paris Climate Conference ended. It included the entire text of the treaty along with the year-long analysis that led up to it and I think the point of the book and what I spent a long time talking about was renewable energy and the myth surrounding renewable energy which I saw a lot of in Paris.

It's kind of this idea, this notion to just take out the dirty, greasy, black gooey stuff, the dirty smelly stuff, and the dirty powdery coal and all that which makes our hands black. We'll get rid of all that dirty stuff and we'll put in this shiny polished stainless steel, poly-composite graphite windmills and solar arrays and thermal mirrors and all these fancy new devices, this whole new tech industry which will suddenly transform the world and employ our entire population and give us clean energy, green growth jobs and so forth.

That's the utopian vision and there's a problem with all utopian visions which is that sooner or later if you try to put them into practice you run into problems with the real world. In the real world there are natural laws and one of those is energy return on energy invested. So we have to look at what is the actual cost in the life cycle of a solar cell or the life cycle of a windmill and how much energy is required to make a windmill? Are there steel components? How was that steel made? Was it made with sunlight? I don't think so. What about aluminum? What about some other fancy composites? What about the silicon wafers in the solar cells? Where did they come from and how were they made? What kinds of facilities do that?

Actually, I have to take an aside here and say that some years back, probably 20 years ago now, Solarex, a big solar company, built the first solar breeder which was a factory in Hyattsville, MD which was solar powered and which made solar cells so that's actually something which can be done. But if you look on the energy return on investment and the life cycle and so forth what you suddenly discover is we have been running on high-entropy, high-return, energy density. For instance, oil and coal and these other dense forms of stored solar energy pack a lot of calories per unit of weight or volume, but took 500 million years of sunlight to make. They're concentrated sunlight which has been stored in the earth.

That was our savings account which we went through in about 200 years. We're now switching over to a checking account, based on daily income – how much sun falls on the planet? Most of that's on the ocean. How much of that can be transformed into useful energy, how much can make liquid fuels? What we find is caloric return per unit weight or volume is much lower, an order of magnitude or more lower than what we were getting from fossil. So it's the first time in history that we're going from a denser form of energy to a less dense form. Every other time we've moved from whale oil to shale oil, from wind from canvas to wind from hydraulics and electromagnets and now we're going back the other way.

There's enormous power stored in ocean waves and tides and things like that. We can and will tap all those things to our benefit but compared to fossil fuels they're going to be a step back. We're actually going to have to contract. The economy is going to have to contract. It already is. What we're seeing now with the broader global economy is a major contraction that's already under way. It's what James Kunstler calls the long emergency. It's going to last a long time and it's going to be in stair steps. It's not going to come all at once.

But if we think that somehow solar power is going to change that trajectory, it's not. We're still going to have to step down. There's a lot of ground to be gained from increased efficiency and from employing low tech solutions and so on. Lifestyle is going to have to shift to reflect that change too. Most people don't understand that.

Personally, I think that megacities are doomed, especially coastal ones. Megacities are based on the import of resources from the periphery to the center. That's going to become much harder when transportation fuels are at much more of a premium. I think that the bioeconomy is the future. We're going to learn to cascade our crops to be able to get ecosystem services from the way in which they are designed and then some food and maybe some fuel and energy from that. Then biochar and carbon, which we're going to put back in the soil, is going to make a reversal in the climate trend and that cycle – actually already – of using bioenergy is seven times more cost-effective from an energy production standpoint than photovoltaics.

If you're going to install photovoltaics in a remote location on a village scale you'll find you'll have seven times more bang for the buck if you go with a biomass kiln and a local crop of food which produces a waste stream for that kiln and the kiln is pyrolytic, it's gasified and so it makes biochar and is therefore a whole business for you. It gives you pharmaceuticals, animal feed and other kinds of things which are of benefit to you. I think that's the future. The problem is that it's a much different future than most people envision and is certainly different than governments coming out of Paris thought was going to happen.

Levi: I would go as far as to say many people can't imagine or have lost this ability to imagine a world that is so vastly different from what it is now. Especially kids nowadays who have access to TV shows and the internet so they don't have to use their imagination as much so I think it withers a bit.

AB: Let me jump in and say something about that. I think that some of the things that people do with permaculture design courses and with introductions to permaculture, and through lectures to the public and so forth, those kinds of entries into what we do in that world are ways of re-educating the population not just to the crisis that we face but also to the things that you can do to make your life better even while the world is undergoing this monumental shift.

I've been teaching this course in Belize for many years. It's the eleventh time we've taught this course at this one farm, an experimental research station in Belize. It is the 50th permaculture design course that I've taught. The thing that I'm getting out of that is that we bring people from North America and Europe into this setting which is a very rural, rustic place. It's the Mayan world. If you go deeply enough into the Yucatan peninsula you find the Mayan world which hasn't changed a lot since Columbus. It's been globalized to a large extent. People wear the same clothes as people in the outside world and they have bicycles and drive cars so the outer things have changed. But the first language is still Mayan. It's still an indigenous population which has indigenous ways. I just attended a funeral ceremony here where I am in the Yucatan right now and it's as much Mayan as it is Catholic.

In the Mayan mountains where we go to the course we're really putting people into a time portal. It's like an adventure where you get to go to a different planet because we're tucked into the foothills of the Mayan mountains two miles up-river from the village of San Pedro, Columbia in southern Belize. You have to get there by an hour in a dugout canoe being poled up river. That's the only way to get there. There's a trail but you probably wouldn't want to try that with a pack, and you still have to ford the river. When you get there, suddenly there's this beautiful sight that's all renewable energy. The food for the course comes from the land every day. For twenty years they've been doing integrated agro-forestry, what the UN calls eco-agriculture, and applied biodiversity. For a quarter of a century really, twenty-six years, they've been there growing organic food and converting citrus and cattle farming to a biologically diverse polyculture. So when you make this trip, when you go through this time portal, you're transported back to a society which existed a thousand years ago and was in complete harmony with the seasons, kept its population within the limits of production of the local watersheds, and had an elegant, simple, wonderfully fruitful life and a community society. You stumble over stones which are parts of old pyramids. This is a long lost city complex of the Maya and was there at its peak a thousand years ago. This is actually the best way to live the future, to see steady-state economies of the past which had it figured out and which actually can change the climate back to the holocene from the anthropocene, given the tools. So I recommend not just our course in Belize which anyone can attend but also other courses in similar settings where there are still indigenous cultures, for a wonderful experience in seeing what the future holds.

Levi: I really appreciate you coming on here and sharing all your great messages, all this information, and spreading it and all that you're doing.

AB: Thanks. It's been great talking to you. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Runaway Geotherapy: Permaculture Realized, Part II

"Putting biology first means challenging big agriculture at the global industrial level."

The following transcript, from an interview for Permaculture Realized podcast on February 2, 2016, has been lightly edited for corrections and readability.

Levi Meeuwenberg: Since the Paris agreement just took place and I think that a lot of people are curious about that, and hopeful, can you tell us what you witnessed there? What happened?

Albert Bates: People tend to lump Paris into either a good or bad category depending on their viewpoint and I'm ambivalent. I'm kind of in both camps, one foot in each camp, because I've been going to these for a number of years going back to the Rio Convention which started the United Nations Convention on Climate Change and then the Rio+10 and Rio+20 Earth Summits, as well as many of the COPs and PrepComs. I was at the COP in Copenhagen for the entire time and blogging it daily and watched in frustration as the whole thing dissolved.

I attended the COPs after that in Cancún and other places so coming into this one I didn't have a lot of expectation because I knew the process and it was moving in very small increments toward something which is really just a band-aid on a much bigger wound. So I didn't expect much more than a band-aid. For a number of years myself and others — people in the organic foods industry, people who are protecting forests, people who are urging agro-forestry, alternate energy, renewables people, and others who are involved — we are called “observers” in UN parlance but who actually have consultative status and can actually input changes to language and treaties and so forth — we in that “civil society” or “multi-stakeholder” side of the UN have been pushing this agenda of carbon sinks — that there's actually, literally, more ground to be gained by looking at forests and soil than there is by emissions reductions.

We do need to do emissions reductions. In fact we should go to zero as quickly as possible. But then we need to go beyond zero and this is the point that we've been raising for a number of years. You can set a target of two degrees or 1.5 degrees above the industrial era and it's great that you have that, but until you actually do the math and figure it out, you don't really have much hope of achieving that, even by reducing emissions, at this point, because you are already on the roller coaster. We've gone over the top of the incline and are on the ride now, for better or worse, and the tipping points which have already been crossed – the release of methane hydrates from the arctic, the melting of Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets, the changes in the equatorial regions, the deserts, the desertification of Brazil and Indonesia, the peat fires – all of those kinds of things, all those tipping points which have already been crossed, are now going to be keeping us busy just keeping up with those, right? Never mind emissions.

For every one degree that we increase the temperature of the planet the amount of methane being released from melting permafrost is equal to 1.5 times our current (2015) emissions. 

Let me say that again. Fifty percent more than the equivalent of all anthropogenic emissions are released from permafrost for every degree that the planet warms. We're already up one degree now so these ‘natural’ sources have already been increased, which leads us to say that for a two degree change we'll get an annual triple dose of present human emissions.

We can't do anything about that by stopping emissions. We can and we should stop emissions and that's what most of the conversation is about at the UN. It's about who is willing to tighten their belt. It's the carrot and stick approach. How can we get people to tighten their belts? Can we tax them? Can we pay them? Can we change the rules on fossil fuels at the source? Can we put fees on mining? Things like that.

The whole Bill McKibben/350.org/Greenpeace approach tends to be in that direction. Naomi Klein says let's blockade. Let's protest. Let's stop emissions. Let's stop new pipelines. I'm all in favor of all of that except it's not going to stop the three times anthropogenic emissions coming from an already heating planet. It's not going to stop that. The only thing we can do about that is to look at the things that soil scientists and farmers look at.

Look at how carbon can be taken out of the atmosphere — the answer to that is photosynthesis. It's very simple, photosynthesis. What's the greatest photosynthesizer? – a forest. Everybody who's taken a permaculture course knows how many hectares there are in a single tree of leaf surface that's photosynthesizing all the time. What's that doing? It's taking the carbon from the CO2 that's in the atmosphere and converting it into a form of labile biocarbon which travels through the phloem of the tree down into the roots and is deposited at the root zones so even if you cut the tree down and burn it, you've still left a lot of carbon in the soil. I'm not urging anybody to cut down trees and burn them, but a tree is an atmospheric scrub brush so we need lots more of them. Can we get our food that way? Can we get our food through forests? Yes, we can. In fact we can get more and better food through forests. Can we get soil sequestered through grasslands? Yes, through holistic management practices of mob grazing and rotational pastures and things like that. Yes, we can absolutely do that. It's been shown. We can demonstrate sequestration from grasslands. Can we re-green the deserts? We absolutely can. We know how to do this. It's not a secret. There are a variety of different methods and it is being done in small scale.

So the soil is our biggest hope and when I went to Paris I carried with me the declaration which had been drafted at the International Permaculture Convergence in London which essentially outlines what permaculture brings to the subject of climate change and it has all of the tools that the world needs, available right now in practice. It just needs the scale. The real victory at COP21, I think, was the recognition that we had this previously hidden weapon to fight climate change – the role that soils can play in reversing global warming.

Managing carbon content in soils is really the best way to take control of the carbon cycle. Not only can soils be a sink but most soils need carbon in order to regain vitality worldwide. Fifty to seventy percent of the carbon in soils has been lost. That's a lot of what's up in the atmosphere. The culprits were irrigation and the plow and those go back ten thousand years. If we can increase photosynthesis with trees and plants and we can get our food that way, then carbon farming is a win-win solution because it's building carbon in the soil.

This is not new. I think my friend Thomas Goreau, who was also in Paris, wrote an article in Nature back in 1987 that said that the way to escape the greenhouse problem was by renewable resource-based land management and it's the cheapest option in the long run. It has lots of advantages in addition like water sequestration, preventing floods, mitigating droughts, controlling polluting inorganic fertilizers, stopping erosion, and so on. All these things come with that approach. Then in 2015 Tom co-authored and edited Geotherapy which is an absolutely fantastic book. It's a free download. Its innovative methods of soil fertility restoration, carbon sequestration, and reversing carbon dioxide increase through soil.

The idea here is to control the carbon cycle with soil and we were like voices in the wilderness at many of these COPs. We said this in Lima, in Warsaw, in Cancun and yet we weren't being heard particularly. But suddenly in Paris this whole idea got traction. I think that one of the major catalysts was the people in the French government in particular who created a program which was launched in Paris on the first of December but which had really been created at the COP in Lima a year earlier called 4 Per 1000 Initiative. You can look this up at 4p1000.org. Four grams per one thousand grams of carbon in the soil is the idea behind 4p1000. I think that this is the new 350.

You can talk about 1.5 degrees, you can talk about 2 degrees, but the only thing you can really talk about which really makes sense to me is 4 per 1000. You can gain four tenths of one percent carbon content for your soils every year. Everyone can. So, if you are keylining a field, planting trees, or changing your method of mulching to where you're getting an addition of four tenths of a percent of carbon to your humus annually your top soil is building. That's not a difficult lift. Most farmers understand that. Although, I have to say, if you go to an ag course like a master gardener course or something in the conventional agriculture schools, they consider a loss of four percent a year to be tolerable and only losing four tenths of a percent as wonderful. That's best practice, to them.
We're not talking about loss. We're talking about gain, about gaining four tenths of a percent and maybe even gaining four percent. You could build a meter of top soil in ten years if you try.

That was signed in Paris by twenty-five countries and fifty civil society organizations in a big rollout. I think that there are probably more countries that have signed on since. France's minister of agriculture was definitely one of the leaders that put that in place. I applaud that because it brought soil to the front of the discussion and it actually means that we can have massive reduction of emissions from energy as we go into biomass energy systems which are stacking functions and cascading from energy into food, carbon soil building, transportation, industries, and broad scale ecological restoration.

All of these are ways out of runaway climate change. We can actually go beyond zero. We can put net carbon into the ground every year. That means that we're creating an atmosphere which has less greenhouse imbalance year after year. Despite the increase of methane and all these other tipping points, we can still get to net zero. We can get to beyond net zero and into net sequestration. That's a game changer and the biggest thing coming out of Paris – that recognition and the number of countries and organizations that bought into that.

 It was not reported outside the blogosphere. USA Today doesn't get it. The New York Times doesn't get it. None of these people understands any of that. They look at the politics – will the Senate ratify this and so on. That's all a big side show which is what the press does. But if you go and see what actually came out of Paris, there's a paradigm shift. It's giving rise to a geotherapy which puts biology first. It's challenging big agriculture at the global industrial level. It places the soil-food-life web near the center of discussions in every COP to come. We are now entering a new age of soil and food. Non-profit organizations like Carbon Underground, Regeneration International, Regrarians and so on are all at the forefront. They're going to find themselves swamped with requests for information and projects to do.

Levi: That is so good to hear. That is so reassuring. Smells like hope. Thank you. That's awesome. How do you foresee some of these new approaches starting to be implemented and then get rolled out in the long term?

Continued next week.
 









Sunday, February 21, 2016

Emergency Planetary Technician: Permaculture Realized, Part I

"If you've ever tried to change money when you're high on acid it's like, ‘what am I doing? What are these pictures of dead presidents doing in my pocket?"

The following transcript, from an interview conducted earlier this month, has been lightly edited for corrections and readability.

Welcome to the Permaculture Realized podcast where we're exploring the paradigm shift that's required to get us through humanity's greatest challenge, climate change. This is Levi broadcasting from our Realized Homestead, February 2, 2016.

Albert Bates is a long-time, influential figure in environmental activism and the ecovillage and permaculture movements. He's a lawyer, an author, and a teacher who's been the Director of the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee since 1994.

He recently attended the COP21 Climate Conference in Paris and he published a book about what happened there, called The Paris Agreement. This interview is packed full of great info so I'm going to just get right into it. I started by asking Albert about his back-story:

AB: The back-story – I went through conventional USAnian, middle class upbringing in rich, white bread suburbia, in my case on the out skirts of New York City in suburban Connecticut although at that time in the early 50s it was a kind of combination of tentative sprawl and farmland. Connecticut at that time was kind of nice and if you've ever watched the television series, “Mad Men,” you can get the idea of what my life as a child growing up was because my father was a mad man. He went to work on Madison Avenue. He worked in public relations and created ad campaigns. That's what he did and he took the New Haven railroad to get into work in New York City every day and came back at night to the little petit mansion and the country life.

As for me, I grew up in Wilton, Connecticut, went to Syracuse University, got a degree in political science, went on to law school, got a degree in law and at that point I had a major shift in my focus in life because I was offered all kinds of jobs in New York. I could have become a New York lawyer and followed the trajectory my parents had set for me or I could break with that meta-programming. I was reading John Lilly at the time and he was writing about the mind of the dolphin, LSD, isolation tanks, and re-programming the human biocomputer so I broke with my whole meta-program. When I graduated law school, instead of sticking around, I went on the Appalachian Trail and a thru-hike from north to south in the course of a summer.

I got down to Tennessee and had heard about The Farm and decided that as long as I was in Tennessee I would go visit it. This was an experimental community which had come out of an exodus of hippies from San Francisco following the Summer of Love. They had started a commune and had found that prices in Marin County and Humboldt County and all those areas were way too expensive so they found some cheap land – $70/acre – in Tennessee and set up shop there for an intentional community on what had been a cattle ranch, replacing 70 cows with 400 hippies.

I joined and became a member in 1972. I fell in love with the place at first glance and ended up staying a month instead overnight and then three months and there I was – the rest of my life. That became a base for me. It was an interesting experiment in many ways. Not only was it a complete detachment from the trajectory that I had been on, but also it was an experiment in living which involved giving up any notion of job, any notion of money. We didn't use money within The Farm, it was a communal society. It wasn't like we were socialist or communist or anti-capitalist — we eschewed isms. It was more like, we just didn't believe in money.

If you go back to the acid days of Haight Ashbury you can kind of understand the etiology of that process. If you've ever tried to change money when you're high on acid it's like, ‘what am I doing? What are these pictures of dead presidents doing in my pocket? Why am I putting so much value on these pieces of metal and pieces of paper? Why am I orienting my entire life on accumulating these things?’ Getting rid of money was really a big step. It was one of the biggest steps we made and it changed everything. When you joined The Farm essentially you gave up everything you ever owned or ever expected to inherit, anything that would distinguish you from someone else.

One of the other tenets of our faith was no social position. We didn't believe in social position. Many people have particular gifts or talents, their heritage, their inclinations, their bliss in life. They follow particular paths and develop their particular talents which is fine, that's all appreciated but it doesn't give you social position. People who are developmentally challenged were on equal footing with people who had Ph.D’s. From that standpoint it was a social experiment which was absolutely one of the most marvelous things I've ever participated in and I'm grateful to this day for the thirteen or fourteen years that we had as a communal, collective society.

image:  Gaspar Tringale for Vanity Fair
We ran into problems with scale. We really were inexperienced teenagers and young people just setting up shop, marrying, having babies and we didn't have the skill sets to do design. Permaculture hadn't been invented at that point. So what we did was sort of ad hoc, take it as it came and, without a design process, we fell into error. That's not bad. Error is a good thing. It's a learning experience but it can also make things harder in many ways. It can waste whatever small amounts you have accumulated. It can destroy valuable assets and things like that. It also makes it very slow and people get impatient.

The problem that we found was not dissimilar to many managed economies: at the age of 30-something we were still queued-up for diapers because we couldn't afford for people to have too many, and tennis shoes, and things like that. And people became generally dissatisfied. They wanted more control over their own lives. At some point we decided to de-collectivize and go back into a system which was similar to what we had come from, a money-exchanging system – but there were also things like a land trust and a cooperative form of self-governance which were much more transparent, consensus-based, using tools and skills which we had developed over that thirteen or fourteen year period.
the author, 1981

For me, I was able to apply my education and my law degree and make living doing useful work. That had started during our collective period because somewhere around the mid- to late seventies nuclear power plants were coming near us. The Tennessee Valley Authority, since it was a Federal utility, was directed by the government under various Republican administrations to make more nuclear power so they were building twenty nuclear power plants and a plutonium breeder. So I dusted off the old law degree, got my license in Tennessee, and went after them and we were able to stop them. We were able to halt that expansion. [This story is told in two books: Honicker vs. Hendrie - A Lawsuit to End Atomic Power; and Shutdown! Nuclear Power on Trial. The Supreme Court brief is here.]

I took on the chemical industry after that – Monsanto, Stauffer Chemical, and AstraZenica, over agrochem pollution – they manufactured pesticides and herbicides using deepwell injection — and got deepwell injection banned in the State of Tennessee which, until recently, included fracking.

I created a non-profit, public interest law project which raised money by donations and we had a small staff of law students and volunteer clerks and went up against the chemical industry and the nuclear power industry. We had the largest portfolio of cases for atomic veterans at the VA. We fought the MX missile and various nuclear weapon systems and programs. We worked for Native American rights.

One of our major areas on The Farm was helping various indigenous peoples’ struggles around the world, beginning in Guatemala and extending to other places. In 1980 I was part of the board of Plenty International when it won the Right Livelihood Award for its work in preserving indigenous cultures. My work also focused on that – saving sacred sites in the Black Hills, preventing uranium exploration in those places, and so forth.

So I was in that field — international, environmental and human rights law — and at some point, I guess in the late '80s, early 90s, I started to get the sense that I was in the same kind of rut I had been in when I was in college or law school, holding a job, doing charitable pro bono stuff, and getting a degree at the same time; that I was a type-A individual and thriving on stress. I have never developed ‘the talent for idleness,’ as Hermann Hesse said. I was getting high blood pressure, my marriage was falling to pieces, and I had too many balls in the air that I was trying to juggle.

So, it was like 'why am I in this mode?’ I decided to retire from the practice of law and get rid of all that and begin to work more in the area of environmental education. But first I became a mushroom farmer. In 1991 I ran a company in Tennessee called the Mushroompeople. We were selling commercial spawn for shiitake, maitake, enokitake — all the Japanese forest mushrooms — as well as selling supplies to farmers and giving courses and workshops in mushroom growing, with Paul Stamets and others.

That led me to create what eventually became the Ecovillage Training Center. I took a permaculture course in '95 with Peter Bane and Chuck Marsh and became an instructor there at our training center. I got involved with the early ecovillage movement. We started a newsletter called The Design Exchange for the Ecovillage Network of the Americas in the 90s and then I was invited to conferences in Scotland, Denmark, and Russia and became part of the founding group for the Global Ecovillage Network which eventually spread to 20,000 villages around the world with over 2 million residents today.

I was president and chairman of the board for a few years and I am still one of their United Nations representatives. What I do with the United Nations is to attend meetings of the Committee for Sustainable Development, the Climate Change Convention, the Desertification Convention, the Biodiversity Convention, and the Human Rights Convention. The tools that I bring to my work at the United Nations deal with permaculture. That's the methodology that I apply in the design of this stage of my life, the pattern of our strategic work, and ultimately, the re-design of the built environment of the planet — how we two-leggeds intend to inhabit our rapidly changing ecological niche.

So you could call me an emergency planetary technician. I'm going to the pressure points where I can stop the bleeding and to places where, if we really apply ourselves, we can change the paradigm. And I have actually witnessed that on a number of occasions, most recently in December in Paris where we were actually able to change the paradigm, or perhaps it was just being present at the moment when the world suddenly shifted, like the hundredth monkey who learns the skill and suddenly every monkey all over the world has that skill. That kind of historic moment.

Levi Meeuwenberg: Since the Paris agreement just took place and I think that a lot of people are curious about that, and hopeful, can you tell us what you witnessed there? What happened?

Continued next week.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Foiled by Oil

"Pemex revenues are down 70% in the past 18 months. That is what Peak Oil looks like."

"Oil in the ground is wealth only on paper – you may own that oil, but it earns you nothing until you recover and sell it. Yet paper wealth is still wealth. It goes on your balance sheet as an asset that you can sell. You can use it as collateral to borrow cash and buy other assets." 


People do use their oil shares to buy houses, cars, planes and college educations. When crude oil prices hit $140 per barrel, pension funds and college endowments rejoiced.

Our 2006 book, The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook was published just as conventional hydrocarbons struck their all-time global production top and began to decline (a picture that emerged only years later). The book challenged readers to consider how they might cope with $20 per gallon gasoline and the absence of public transit alternatives.

It also described the undulating top we now see, where high price destroys demand, which crashes price, which boosts demand, which raises price, and so on. Think of this part as the whoop-de-doos after the roller coaster cranks its way to the top and lets gravity take over.

Lately there have been a spate of articles in the financial press beating up on Peak Oil theorists for being so widely wrong in their predictions. They point to charts showing global oil production rising from 86.5 million barrels per day in 2008 to 96 million in 2015. Of course, they are mixing apples and oranges. What peaked, right on schedule in 2006, was conventional liquids.

After 2006 Big Oil played its hole card, unconventional oil and gas. Those inside the sector had been telling the Peak Oilers about this all along, but it still caught some incautious prophets out on a hoisted petard. "Our community would concede that we underestimated or didn't quite understand this whole fracking thing," said Jan Lars Miller of ASPO-USA (Association for Study of Peak Oil). "It exceeded everyone's expectations."

Not everyone's.

What Big Oil did not tell the pundits was that the unconventionals are a Ponzi scheme, too expensive to compete with renewable energy, made up mostly of a great credit bubble and churning real estate plays. Like all such schemes, unconventionals run on a short fuse that is only as long as the credibility of its grifters. As long as the con can keep up an appearance of legitimacy, people still buy houses, cars, planes and college educations riding on cascades of fraud.

On Big Oil's books, proven reserves of oil are presently estimated at 1,700 billion barrels. Just in the past 18 months, and accelerating after the Paris Agreement, the decline in value has been $70 per barrel. The value of oil shares, therefore, has been reduced by $119,000,000,000,000. That is 119 trillion. It is only a matter of time until the market catches up to that peg. It is already on its way. Maudlin said, "The lost value in crude oil is equivalent to a couple of hundred Googles and Apples going up in smoke."

But lest we forget, we are not just over the top of Peak Oil, we're at Peak Everything: coal, natural gas, iron, copper, zinc, nickel, lead, palladium, platinum, silver, and aluminum – all suffered double-digit percentage valuation drops in 2015.

One of our earliest blogs here on this site was published August 14, 2007. It was called "The Mexican Trigger." We still do not know if what we prophesied then will yet come to pass, but it is worth looking at. We laid it out more completely in September, 2007 for Energy Bulletin:
In 2004, Pemex was pleased to announce that its oil wealth would continue for many years to come. Pemex's head of exploration and production, Luis Ramirez, was quoted in the daily newspaper El Universal as saying that Pemex had mapped seven new offshore blocks with large pools of oil and natural gas, likely in the range of 54 billion barrel-equivalents, more even than México’s proven plus probable reserves at that time.

“This will put us on a par with reserves levels of the big players like Iraq, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait or Iran,” Ramirez said. “What's more, we would be in a position to reach production levels like those of Saudi Arabia, which produces 7.5 million barrels per day, or Russia, which produces 7.4 million.”

Just 3 years later, Pemex's tune had changed. It had reckoned the cost of unconventionals versus conventionals and fully understood that high prices would be required if it was going to become a big league star. As we described in our post, on July 27, 2007, Raúl Muñoz Leos, Director General of Pemex, warned that México had less than seven years before the country would run out of conventional oil. Not seven years until it peaked. Not seven years for Cantarell, its super field. Seven years, and Méxican production would run dry.

Let's see. 2007 plus 7 equals 2014. So what happened?

What happened was that Mexico did the same thing as the United States did in 1970. It deployed technological advances, it went unconventional (first offshore, later shale and fracked gas), and it imported to fill the gaps. When Enrique Peña Nieto was elected he quickly moved to privatize the national oil company. Pemex stopped being a public agency and became a "State Production Enterprise." Thanks to Peña Nieto's government, Pemex is now authorized to attract foreign investment of $8.5 billion dollars by selling parts of itself to private companies, including the US oil cartel.

Fast forward to 2016.
30 January: With budget cuts, the abandonment of the oil installations on land and in the Campeche Sound, it appears that the Federal Government is determined to liquidate Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) and return to where we were before the oil boom, which would create an economic and social catastrophe for the oil states like Campeche….

Por Esto, the newspaper of Yucatán


The government, which previously milked Pemex oil revenues to pay for breathtakingly rapid development of the country, found itself having to now raise taxes from tourism and other sources to keep Pemex afloat. In 2015 it cut what it spent on Pemex by 340 million dollars. Pemex shed 11,735 jobs and did not replace 80% of those retiring. It canceled $10 billion in pensions for those in retirement.

Mexico: Oil Production 1960-2015
Editorials in the Mexican press say the crisis was "the most important in the sector since the 1938 constitutional change [nationalizing energy companies]."

What is still not being widely recognized is that the crisis in oil is the main reason for the crisis in the finances of Mexico. The crash of the peso against the dollar — 20% per year since 2013 — is seen as good for tourism. How tourism will fare when the national grid fueled by petroleum cannot provide power to beach resorts is not discussed.

In January, 25 Pemex buildings had no electricity service for a period because the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) cut off service for nonpayment. Some workers ran to the hardware store and bought portable generators so they could continue monitoring critical functions like pipelines and offshore drill rigs.

The average price Pemex received for oil in 2015 was $49/bbl. It is now below $25. Some analysts estimate that government, in full-blown financial free-fall, may cut investment in Pemex by $3 billion in 2016, which would take production to 2.0 million barrels per day, down from 2.27 million last year and 3.4 million at the peak in 2004.

Low oil prices do not mean oil is not going to peak any more than a snowstorm means that global climate is not warming. In fact they only serve to prove the peak oil theory.

Pemex revenues are down 70% in the past 18 months. That is what Peak Oil looks like. Mounting debt for exploration, which must be paid in dollars to US companies, is $11.7 billion, or 63.8% of the present value of Mexico's declining proven reserves. Remittances — money earned abroad and sent back to the families – are now one-third larger for the Mexican economy than oil revenues. Will those be used to pay Pemex's foreign debt service, 65% of which is due in dollars, and 15% in euros, yen and yuan? Or perhaps the government just can switch to legalizing and taxing marijuana?

This month Mexican Association of Petroleum Industry (AMIPE) Chairman Erik Legorreta told potential investors:
"Petróleos Mexico is and remains the ideal for Mexican companies and foreign participants in the sector, and this is the time to invest in it, to seize the coming period of rising prices, that are historically cyclical." He said Pemex was among the most competitive companies in the world .

In January Pemex issued a tranch of 10-year junk bonds valued at 5 billion pesos, roughly 300 million dollars, with promised interest rates of 6.9%, or 491.6 basis points over comparable US Treasuries. Standard & Poor's rates them BBBB. Those are still for sale. Want some?

And, lest we forget, Mexico was until recently the largest source of crude oil flowing to the United States. Its share was down to just 9% of US imports in 2015 and the flow will change direction in 2016. But then, the US no longer needs to import oil, right?

Shale oil fields, by their nature, are easy to turn on and off. If your oil costs $40 a barrel to produce and you can sell it for only $35, you can cap your wells and wait for higher prices. Canada, which supplies 37% of oil imports to the US, is doing this now.

However, if you borrowed or fleeced gullible investors for the money to drill your wells you need cash to service debt and pay dividends. You will keep pumping even if you only break even or run a loss, as long as you can pay the debt. The alternative is default. Bondholders are the only ones getting quick liquidations from drilling — in bankruptcy court. Oil patch bond prices have collapsed.

Fracked gas is a different story. Once you drill you have to extract. If you are not fast enough, you can wind up with a methane gusher like Porter Ranch (or Deepwater Horizon's Macando blowout). So you have a monkey on your back. It doesn't matter what you paid to drill the well, you have to sell at a loss, as North Dakota fracker Hess Oil recently discovered to the tune of negative $875 million (forcing it to sell off all its retail gas stations to Marathon and shares of its stock it had only just purchased at twice the price, in exchange for a couple more quarters of solvency and hope).
Current Depletion Projections by Industry Analysts

We suggested here in 2007 that if Pemex went down, it could take the US economy with it. Since then, however, the US economy has weaned itself of dependence on Mexican oil. Instead, it grew its own (and Canada's) unconventional fuel capacity on a foundation of financial fraud. That became the US's main economic driver — extending by pretending — and a growth industry it could export.

Fraud is a fragile mistress that likes to be pampered. She does best with the trendy urbane who imagine that to the clever, reward comes without work and that pushing paper between desks, or electrons through the ether, is the same as growing potatoes or pounding nails. She avoids being seen around reality-based communities, preferring to find dark embrace where the fog of deception is thick and judgments are clouded by greed.


As Frederic Bastiat reminded us, "When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it."

In his documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, Michael Moore observed that during the Bush Recession when the auto industry laid off much of its workforce and shut down most its lines, it wasn't because it could not make and sell cars. It was because the Bank of America would no longer loan it money to upgrade its production lines. Mexico is able to extend the illusion of development only as long as someone loans it money. The same is true of the United States.

What if the banks would or could no longer loan money? That day may be nearer than most economists believe, but then, predictions of peaks, or a systemic crash, are a risky proposition.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Community in Death

"Denial is common among our kind of sapient apes and faith in the supernatural — angels, aliens, and economists — exposes our deeper fear of overdue reckonings."

 
When a person you know dies, a part of you must go too, like a thread being cut and a part of yourself unraveling. We are a weave of such threads, we two-leggeds, and our knits are a biochemical, emotional, electrical and microbial gestalt. We interweave with each other in ways that are seen and unseen, forming a fabric that we call, for lack of precision, "community."

We have been spending some winter months in recent years in a small village on the North coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. When we first arrived it was a not atypical coastal town with dirt streets and thatched or tin roofs. It is secure within one of Mexico's largest nature preserves, and it is here because the village pre-existed the reserve, so it was allowed to remain as long as it behaved, and then even when it didn't. Development has been very cruel to this region in recent years, has made it socially, economically and ecologically more fragile, and has set it up for a big fall in the not very distant future. 

We are much more comfortable wintering here than in the cold north, in Tennessee, or in touristy trendy spots like Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Cabo San Lucas or Playa del Carmen. Here we can find the quiet time we need to gather and sort our lost or jumbled thoughts, recover from our summer labors and travels and prepare for the work to come. We have written 5 books here and substantially contributed to at least twice that many more.

Before there was Cancún or the state of Quintana Roo, this had been just one more fishing village — a few hundred souls. It was known mainly for the quality of its hammocks and the beautiful seashells that washed up on its beaches. Because of its position along Cabo Catoche and the Straits of Cuba, it receives annual migrations of fish, birds, sea turtles and marine mammals and the biodiversity runs deep. The name of a nearby town is the Mayan word for manatee. The name for this place in Mayan is "black hole," a reference perhaps to the freshwater Yalahau cenote that for more than five centuries attracted whalers, pirates and explorers to refill their water casks. Among the older family lines you can recognize Russian, Nordic, Moorish, Maori and Portuguese lineages in facial hair, skin complexion, physical build and other features that are neither Yucatec nor Mestizo.

Here, where it is so full of life, is a strange place to think of death, but there come times when everyone needs to. Mexico has very different customs regarding death than its neighboring countries to the North. As Octavio Paz wrote in Labyrinth of Solitude:
"The Mexican ... is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it. True, there is as much fear in his attitude as in that of others, but at least death is not hidden away: he looks at it face to face, with impatience, disdain or irony."

When Hernan Cortes conquered the region that is now Mexico City, his conquistadors noticed a local ritual of making offerings to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, Queen regnant of Mictlan, the underworld, ruling over the afterlife. In the Aztec codices, Mictecacihuatl is represented with a defleshed body, jaw agape to swallow the stars during the day. Cortes' priests were quick to link the Aztec rituals to the Catholic observances of All Hallows Eve, All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, just as they brilliantly connected the dark-skinned indigenous Madonna, the Virgin of Guadalupe, to the corn goddess, Chicomecoatl. Unlike the masses for the dead celebrated elsewhere, however, Dia de los Muertos is a happy occasion, with a carnivalesque atmosphere.

For the south of Mexico and in rural areas, death holds far greater social and cultural significance than in the north and large cities; families and communities may spend large parts of the year in smaller rituals and processions and it is not uncommon to find an altar in every home with images of the departed. The pre-Columbian concept of life and death was as part of a broader, never-ending cycle of existence, which dovetailed neatly with Christian and Asian traditions of veneration of the deceased, afterlife and reincarnation. In places and periods where unnatural death is a regular feature, as it was in much of Turtle Island after European contact and for 500 years, death becomes engrained as a cultural expression. As the artist Diego Rivera said in 1920: "If you look around my studio, you will see Deaths everywhere, Deaths of every size and color."

Our neighbor across the way on Calle Gonzalo Guerrero is Capitán Carmelo, a fisherman and whale shark diving guide. He is part of an old family in the town and an "abuelo" now, with grandchildren in their teens. A day ago his wife, Maria Coral de Sabatini, died and today the community laid her to rest. We are going to spend a few moments now describing that process, because it has a lot to say about the power of community, how it is built, how it is held, and how it passes between generations.

We started noticing Maria's cough a few years ago. She sort of shrugged it off, sitting as she did in her chair in front of her home every day, but we couldn't help but notice as it became deeper, more throaty and more painful. We suspected that because she and Carmelo neither drink nor smoke and neither does anyone else in their house, that it was not likely lung cancer but more probably tuberculosis. Her family simply called it las garras (the claws, or what we might call the grip). When we returned last year it had gotten so severe that she had lost a lot of weight and could not sit outside on dusty days. When we returned this year she was gone. We asked after her and Carmelo said she was in the hospital.

Then on Christmas she returned home. We asked her about her health and she said she lived day to day, “poca a poca,” little by little. We understood her to be dying. She had come to do that at home, among friends.

The knowledge that a person will die, combined with the uncertainty of not knowing when the event will happen, can be very stressful for family members and we witnessed this as the family drew together over the holidays. Then she seemed to recover, was up and about, and we were happy to see her walking to the corner store for eggs or fruit again, frail but smiling. The family dispersed again, the kids back to school, Carmelo and his son-in-law to fish each morning before sunrise.

A few days ago Maria's condition worsened and the family was pulled back together. Then one morning she suffered an arrest and the paramedics were summoned, followed by the police with the village pickup truck that doubles as an ambulance. We watched from our home and after an hour or so, the medics and police left and soon the village priest arrived.

Maria was given last rites by the priest and anointed with holy oil. If she was able, the priest heard her final confession, provided communion and offered absolution. Then began the vigil.

The vigil was attended mostly by immediate family, close neighbors and friends and lasted a day and a night, until Maria passed, peacefully, in her sleep. In the morning the family closed off the street and erected a tent. Chairs were brought and placed in a circle. A white coffin arrived, and Maria was bathed, dressed, and placed in it, on a pedestal in the front room of her home. For the next 24 hours, everyone who knew her came to pay their respects and say goodbye. They filed into the home and then out to the tent, where they sat, told stories, ate, sang. Musicians — different ones, separately and in groups — came with instruments, some several times. Choirs appeared and serenaded. Prayers were recited. Children came and sat with their elders or wandered in to stare at the body in the open coffin. Candles were lit. Elders were helped in, touched her, held her hand, said a prayer and were helped back out to the street. More candles were lit. More hymns, more prayers.

The wake continued through the night. A heavy rain fell, the heaviest of the winter so far. The songs got louder to drown the rain. Because Carmelo and Maria were teetotalers, there was no alcohol. This was a time for friends and family members to share memories of the past, to speak of their concerns for their own families, the village, the future. It is a moment when the fabric of the tribe is being woven. Lost threads are recovered. Wrongs are forgiven. Apologies are made. Expressions of friendship, kinship and love patch tears in the fabric. The children witness it all. This is part of their formative experience.

Maria was royalty. She bears the family name of José María Sabatini, for whom the annual fishing tournament is named. Her family, and the family of Carmelo, go back to the group that endured the great hurricane that swept away the original village on the Southwest point of the peninsula and made new islands there. They migrated their ejido southeast and built the village that is here now. There are a few names that appear most often in the cemetery that mark these families: Moguel, Ancona, Betancort, Avila, Nuñez, Rosado, Coral, Sabatini. Notice that these are not Mayan names and some are also not Spanish.

At sunrise a pickup truck fords the deep puddles and backs up to the house. The coffin and flowers are raised into the truck bed and the procession of mourners follows it at a walking pace to the church. There the coffin is unloaded, brought to the front of the nave and opened for viewing again. It is 8 am. Now the village gathers.

Capitan Carmelo is a vicar in the church and normally it would be his duty to prepare the way, usher the family to seats, read part of the scripture, and make the collection. Instead, he takes his position in the front row with his family while his fellow deacons, dressed in white, perform those functions. A choir forms at the vestry door and sings energetically at various points in the service. Loudspeakers in the nave make their small number seem larger than it is, but they sing in a style that is definitely homespun and authentic, not canned.

The cement angel motions the dead to hush up and sleep
Midway through, the town's power is lost, a not uncommon daily occurrence in this place. The priest does not even pause to acknowledge the loss. Lit through stained glass and with acapella choir, his mass does not miss a beat.

After communion, the pallbearers return to stand beside the coffin and Carmelo leans in to plant one last kiss on Maria before the lid comes down. It is a touching moment.

Then the coffin and flowers are carried back onto the bed of the pickup, which gets stuck turning around in the mud, and once unstuck, the long procession passes slowly through town and out to the cemetery in a light rain.

In Mexico it is said the dead return on certain days of the year. Those days they are remembered through special ceremonies. The body must be buried, not cremated, for their return to occur. Because we are on the sandy coast, the cemetery consists of aboveground vaults, cemented and tiled to protect from the sea. During Hurricane Wilma, the entire cemetery, and the town, went a meter or more under the waves and although the cemetery wall had to be repaired, relatively few of the vaults were badly damaged. Maria's family names, Coral and Sabatini, are on several of headstones.

Afterward, the mourners gather back in our street for a meal and reception. This is a time for levity, good food, and comforting those who are still dealing with their grief. Then, after two or more days awake, the family gets to sleep a short while and Maria Coral de Sabatini is gone but not forgotten.

The tent remains for the next 8 days, and each day there are visitors. Twice each day the front room of the house is filled with voices raised in hymn and the recitation of the rosary. On the final day, it is an all-night ceremony.

The cemetery is particularly poignant because this is a town that is built on the coral sand of a barrier island. The highest point of land is no more than 3 meters above the sea. Wetlands approach the edge of the cemetery and trash is being dumped there to fill the sinkholes. Some of that trash includes old monuments and broken crypts of the departed whose names have been forgotten, the marks on their stones and crosses rubbed out by time and salt air.

It might be denied by the government or wishful thinkers, but this is an entire town on death watch. The vigil begins every June, when it enters hurricane season, because one more Wilma could erase everything but the memories. Already regular tides that coincide with the moon are bringing seawater inland to places it has not reached in the memory of the elders. Many seawalls that were constructed after Wilma are now nearly obsolete. The population here continues to grow on the strength of tourism and Catholic fecundity, but where it will go when the town vanishes is anyone's guess. It is likely that many of these families could break apart. This is a community of place.

How long does it have? That's anyone's guess too. It could be a decade. Maybe two. Three seems unlikely, because both the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico are warming dramatically and molecular thermal expansion of the water, combined with the westerly currents at this latitude which dictate that sea level rise here will be stronger and faster than most other parts of the Earth. Southeastern Mexico, Galveston, New Orleans and Miami are on the front lines of climate change. Miami Beach, like here, has been sinking one inch each year, one foot every 12 years, and that is accelerating.

Some here believe that some supernatural event will spare this place its preordained fate. Denial is common among our kind of sapient apes and faith in the supernatural — angels, aliens, and economists — exposes our deeper fear of overdue reckonings. Still, not even the most hopeful provisions of The Paris Agreement can alter the fate of coastal cities and low islands now.

In the not-too-distant future the only way to visit Maria will be with a mask and snorkel. Unless the government decides to relocate everything, an unlikely prospect, she will still be here, and probably alongside Carmelo, when the rest of us have moved to higher ground. 

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