Sunday, September 16, 2018

Cherry Blossom Soap

"China’s real wealth is not yuan but cherry blossoms."

No longer having a television at home I occasionally, stuck in a hotel room overnight, will turn to the luminous box to see who is speaking and listen to what the conversation is about.
In the USA the content is usually so banal and rote that I can only stay with it a few moments, flicking around the channels in search of something more enlightening. Most of it seems as though it were designed by Edward Bernays to addict some faceless, brainless masses and make them more easily controlled. It is no different in Russia or China, or anywhere else in this respect—a very inexpensive and relatively effective mental reform school or internment camp.
Nighttime fare in China can include Game of Thrones, Handmaid’s Tale and Peaky Blinders, same as in the West. You can also watch old episodes of Batman, Twin Peaks, China Beach or Star Trek. What was interesting to discover in China, however, is the soaps.
There are no daytime series that revolve around homosexuality and adultery. The gay-themed show Addicted was pulled by censors who said it exaggerated the dark side of society.
Chinese TV leans towards relatively few genres for their daytime dramas. Many have historical settings the way the US does with its westerns, colonials and WWII. In China these range from costumed set pieces of Medieval dynasties, with court intrigues, sword battles and steamy love affairs, to wartime novellas with Japs as the Nazis (at the same time, a few channels over on CCTV news, we can watch Li Xinping forging stronger ties with Shinzō Abe at the Asian Economic Summit). The Second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945) still burns in the memories here, much the way the first 9/11 does for Chileans, or Fallujah will for Iraqis generations from now.
Most popular at the moment is the flying kung fu romance story, Three Lives Three Worlds, also called Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms. Number two is Dr. Qin: Medical Examiner. Crime dramas are also big. Doctors, lawyers and detectives are starting to pluck eyeball counts from sorcerers and princesses.
Clicking through the channels I stopped at one that had a lovely backdrop of cherry blossom time. I can’t tell you the name because it was all Chinese and so far Google images hasn’t helped locate it. As I came into the story I thought at first it was a movie because it was so well filmed. A somewhat plump woman was trying to land a job in an outdoor countryside restaurant, and after being told by the owner he had no work for her, she made some delicious food in her wok and took it around to the tables singing as she went and giving servings to each of the guests, who tasted and applauded her. Later, the owner collected the tips and brought them to her, offering her a job. Seeing how poor she and her three children appeared, he also gave them a bag of corn and some other food to take and then she and her young ones left and climbed the mountain back to their village in the rain, wearing her wok as a hat.
There we learn she is the main provider for her sister and her mother also, and every day she and her children work the fields before journeying to the restaurant to work. Where is dad? Cutaway to the city and here is dad, his hair starting to grey but his body still muscular as he shovels coal and digs ditches. He scrapes by and saves money, ignoring the easy temptations of the city. Then one day his young friend takes him downtown and as they wander a busy alley filled with shops he hears a familiar voice shouting angrily at a customer who did not pay.
He stops at the outside of a beauty parlor, really just an open alcove with a chair, mirror, and lights, and stares at the young woman cleaning up after the customer she has just ejected. He steps up into her light but she does not look up, she just tells him to take the seat, he is next.
Remember, I don’t actually speak Chinese. I am lip-syncing here, but the acting is good so I will risk it. Anyone familiar with this series, feel free to correct my version.
He obediently sits, expressionless, and she distractedly throws a towel around his chest, stirs some water and begins to shampoo his hair. It is only then she looks up into the mirror and sees his face. It is her father.
Fighting back tears, she continues to massage his scalp with shampoo and pretends she is someone else. He listens quietly and only when she is done speaking, he begins to speak, softly, of how much he and her mother have missed her, how they wondered how she is doing, and when she will return. Tears are now streaming down her face as we see them both in the mirror.
She now switches to her true identity and tells him that she has missed them also, but that her business is doing well, she is prospering, and that she will not return with him. He begs her. He is crying now too. Her fingers have stopped moving through his scalp. They both weep.
She gives him a roll of bills to take home to the mountain. He at first refuses, saying he only wants her to come back with him. She will not, so he takes the money and leaves.
Back in the mountain village, which is always stunningly beautiful, he returns to great rejoicing by his family who are eager to hear of his time in the city. He puts the money he earned on the table and his mother seems very proud. His wife says she has work now and he can remain if he wishes. Then he puts the second money wad on the table. They all stare.
When he says it is from the daughter, his wife becomes outraged at him for not bringing her home. He explains that he tried and failed, but that she is happy in her new life and sends her love. All weep.
Like any soap, this episode was preceded and succeeded by scores more episodes recounting the rural/city life of this one family. I had only stumbled into one vignette, but I thought it was so well scripted, well made and well acted it should be on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
The bigger backdrop, of course, is ongoing globalization that is just as traumatizing as was the Second Sino-Japanese war, the Great March or the Mongol conquest. Families that have lived in balance with nature in the same place for hundreds of generations are being cast off their lands, atomized, and assimilated into Charley Chaplin’s Modern Times.
Chaplin’s prophetic vision of this experience was explained by film critic Gregory Stephens:
The man-eating-machine theme came to Chaplin at age 12. Apprenticed to a printer, he found himself dwarfed by a huge printing press. “I thought [it] was going to devour me.” As an adult he reframed this view. Charlie is a trickster (playfulness is the essence of monkey-wrenching), and the machine has swallowed something indigestible, giving it indigestion. In the second lunch-time feeding, all but the mechanic’s mouth has been immobilized. If in the earlier scene, the machine-men had tried for force their workers to ingest progress, on this lunch break, Charlie has engineered a bit of humble pie. Work and the irascible mechanic’s mouth are brought to a standstill. Soon this scene devolves into something like a loving son feeding his invalid father. That he first attempts unsuccessfully to feed the mechanic through an oil funnel, and then successfully through the opening of a whole cooked chicken, seems to suggest the need for both mechanic and machine to be brought closer to natural processes.
And so we stand, like Chaplin, staring down the gullet of the all-devouring machine. It is hard to imagine how China can possibly back down off this perch and return to its Confucian and Taoist values, those Li Xinping has called its “Mountain of Gold.”
Eco-civilization lies up that winding mountain trail, not down in the grimy city. China’s real wealth is not dollars, rubles or yuan but in those cherry blossoms.
If soaps are a reflection of innermost desires, the Chinese people want this, and miss it, even if they cannot quite see how to get there yet.

Sunday, September 9, 2018


"Guided by an unquenchable passion for meaning and impact."

We are participating in a 4 week course in ecovillage design at the UNESCO rural development center in Chengdu, China and fortunately there is a VPN connection here that allows us to “spoof” the Chinese censors and reach into Medium, Blogger, Google, Facebook, Twitter and all the otherwise banned sites, so this week I can post.

Actually, I’m gonna cheat and repost from the blog of one of the Chinese students, Lin Fan. As Fan tells her followers, “From a telecom network engineer to a software product manager, from a Silicon Valley professional to a global traveller (with a bicycle in tow for 5 months), from China to the Silicon Valley then to the world then back to China, my life journey has been guided by an unquenchable passion for meaning and impact.”
In Jan 2017, after 8 months traveling in 15 countries in Europe and APAC region, I decided to return to China and put the inspiration I got on the road, and especially from Mother Nature, in a new life journey in China. After another 3 and a half months, 12-cities domestic tour to reconnect with the country, I settled in Hangzhou, a dynamic tech & startup hub fortunately with rich cultural and natural heritage.
I am devoting myself to researching, writing, advocating and facilitating sustainable practices in individual and society levels. Particularly I am interested in the movements of sustainable lifestyle, permaculture, organic farming, and community supported agriculture in China.

In the sixth and seventh installments of her daily blog from the Ecovillage Design Course, Lin Fan writes:

Day 6 @EDE class: Look Beyond Village & Stakeholder Mapping

sustainablin BlogSeptember 3, 2018, 7 Minutes

A VIP guest

We started our class 30 minutes earlier today because a Chinese official from UNESCO International Research and Training Center for Rural Education (INRULED) visited us and wanted to spend some time in the class before going to catch his flight in Chengdu. The INRULED center we are using here is largely due to his support, to this class and to ecovillage education in general. The center is free to EDE organizers, though non-volunteer students still paid for their boarding. (I paid ~$615 for food and boarding for 28 days). So organizers, i.e. Chinese Ecovillage Network and Sunshine Ecovillage Network, can use the saving to cover other costs, such as teaching service from GEN, international travel expenses of GEN teachers, provisions for dorm rooms and kitchen, etc.

In a 10-minutes, rapid-fire informative speech, the official traced the history of sustainable movements to two influential books: Silent Spring (Wiki, 1962) and The Limits to Growth (Wiki,1972). The model of our industrial civilization is basically consuming the resources of our planet and leave us trash eventually. This is not sustainable. In March, 2018, Chinese government added in constitution “the building of an ecological civilization” to the duties and powers of the State Council (1). It’s a new form of human civilization based on sustainable principles (Wiki).

How can we realize ecological civilization? He firmly believes that education and training are critical building blocks. He went on that UNESCO has laid the theory groundwork by a few profoundly influential reportsLearning to Be (1972)Learning, the Treasures within (1996), and Rethinking Education (2015) For people in the class who may become future designers or developers of ecovillages, you will have a lot of work, as one of his few ending points.

Just as Kosha was about to continue the class according to original agenda, Haichao, head of the organizers suggested that students share their feedback to the class, so that this official can hear students’ thoughts first hand. Kosha thought it a good idea too. So 5 or 6 outspoken students grabbed the opportunity. I took longer time to organize my thoughts. Just when I finally felt ready to talk and stood up, the official had to leave for the airport. The teacher and a few organizers walked out of the class to see him off. The class naturally took a break as it happened.

Look beyond a village

Putting ecovillage movement in the grand background of ecological civilization, highlighting the role of education and training, all helped me greatly in understanding the possible impact of my role as an independent writer and journalist. And my horizon is suddenly broadened. Though I learn to think about ecological villages in 4 dimensions holistically (social, economy, ecology and culture), often I still think of it at the scale of a village concerning immediate stakeholders. But as an observer and thinker (in journalist’s hat), I need to watch the society more broadly.

It’s great that Chinese government formalized the goal of building ecological civilization in constitution. HoweverI don’t know if we are already more advanced than western countries in sustainable development, until I see reliable data evidence. I feel that we are still behind in terms of public awareness, voluntary adoption of sustainability practices and contribution to initiatives, such as classifying household trash, recycling resources, maintaining the cleanliness of public places, reducing package, using fewer plastic bags when shopping, raising fund to support community sustainability initiatives, etc. Such observation is from comparing my years of experience living and traveling in western countries, to my recent one year living and traveling in China.

The power of “the grassroot”

Kosha Joubert
Many of my classmates commented that they had learned a lot from our EDE class about the 4-dimension model on ecovillage, from our extraordinary teacher Kosha (CEO of Global Ecovillage Network), and from other classmates’ knowledge and experience. But what can we learn from the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) as a mature and influential organization?
 Do we know of any Chinese NGO or NPO that has been in existence for two decades and now has presence in 5 continents and has involved itself in about 10,000 communities and related projects? I am making a reference to the profile of GEN here (2). What kind of powerful vision and values that unite people around the globe? What kind of organizational skills, domain expertises, and far-flung connections does it take to make such a global impact? And more importantly, grow that impact over decades?

What lessons has it learned? What struggles is it facing? GEN has generously authorized its Chinese partner to translate teaching materials. Organizations like Sunshine Ecovillage Network (Hangzhou, China) have started to offer similar but adapted classes in their region. I think what is very very hard to replicate is a mature organization and competent people.

As some speakers brought up in the 2018 Dujiangyan International Forum, bottom-up approaches, i.e. grassroot communities, should eventually take greater ownership in sustainability projects. This is music to my ear as I think this is another key area where we are behind western countries. It takes the training from a civil society (wiki) for citizens to practice taking ownership and responsibility for social wellbeing, to learn how to organize events professionally, how to raise fund legally and gracefully, how to reach out to stakeholders of different interest and maintain relationships, and how to build domain competence and sustain their organizations for years if not decades.

In a group exercise, one team member presented the stakeholder map of her existing project (illustrated by photo above), an ecological apartment complex about one-hour driving distance from our training center. The project now has a farm, two residential buildings with 80 apartments, and one separate community center building for events. The biggest challenge right now is that they don’t really have regular residents. That’s a tricky situation to be in. We are going to visit and explore the place tomorrow (on Day #7).

Stakeholder mapping

On a 4 quadrant by two dimensions: influence (high-low), impact (positive-negative), we looked into each possible stakeholder of our own projects and assign the stakeholders to a quadrant, and position them against the X and Y axis according to perceived influence and impact.
 Representatives from Sunshine Ecovillage Network and the still fledgling China Ecovillage Network (founded in Dec 2017) laid out their stakeholder cards on mat, so that the whole class can observe and analyze together. At the end, we found most cards in “positive impact” quadrants, either highly or low influential. Kosha asked a representative why a certain stakeholder was considered “highly influential and highly positive” while another is “highly influential but negative”. A few revelation from the exercise:
  1. Strengthen your support base: work to empower stakeholders in “lowinfluential but positive” zone, so that they can move to “highly influential and positive” zone.
  2. Face your enemies head on: don’t avoid or ignore stakeholders in “highly influential but negative” zone. Your great enemies can become your best friends, just as the opposite can happen because human interaction is largely based on emotional connection. Build that connection.
  3. Distinguish your wish and reality: if we don’t see many stakeholders in “negative” zone, i.e. most in “positive” zone, is it because we tend not to think of them? Is it because we wish most stakeholders to be positive and overlook their negative tendency in reality? 
I am devoting myself to researching, writing, advocating and facilitating sustainable practices in individual and society levels. Particularly I am interested in the movements of sustainable lifestyle, permaculture, organic farming, and community supported agriculture in China.

People of the day

Wen, independent event planner. Wen is the nice roommate who gave me her lower bunk bed so that I can sneak out of the dorm easily at 4ish in the morning to work on my blogs. Her hair is barely a quarter inch long, a style inspired by her father, and confused me that I might have carelessly stepped in a male dorm when I met her the first time. In her early 30s, she is bright, jovial and eager to learn. When we did stakeholder mapping exercise in a group, I learned about her project in detail, and more about her, for the first time. (I know I will eventually profile all three of my lovely roommates, slowly getting there.

She wants to revitalize the local community and protect the historical heritage of a small island in the Changjiang River near Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province. She planned to build a museum of oral history, using it as a community hub and special tie to connect with residents originated from the island. However, this effort is facing many challenges. Property developers have cast their covetous eyes on the island. It has been rumored that they want to build water entertainment facilities, though theoretically any new construction should be banned because the island is significant to flood management of the area.

Wen has been active in protecting local environment for recent years. She organized events to raise public awareness, as well as participated in many workshops to study new subjects and develop herself. Early this year, she criticized a local government leader on her blog, asking him to “get out” of the city. She refused authority’s request to take down that post and was detained in a temporary detention house for a couple weeks. Then she was transferred to a prison for some more weeks before she was freed on bail, 39 days in total. [This was not her first time being jailed for her opinions, she seems to do it with some regularity.] After her jailings, she posted online, wrote and called authorities to suggest improving the food and environment of detention facilities. It is important to the health of staff there as well, she believes.

Life here

Halfway from Dujiangyan to Huadao, I was excited to see this nice, separate bike path along freeway. Though no public transportation stops at Huadao currently, it’s only 12 minutes by bike to get to the nearest town where there is public transportation.

I didn’t sleep on Friday night. I was seriously behind my target to blog daily. By the end of Day #5, I had posted blogs only up to Day #2. So I decided to sacrify one night sleep to catch up. I had some fine green tea, dry fruits and nuts to boost energy. My mind was clear and excited due to thinking and writing, but definitely a bit slower than usual. Finally I posted 3 new blogs for Day #3–5. But throughout Day #6, I felt quite sleepy in the class, only got better in late afternoon.

In the evening, we had a celebration for the first week. I taught the class a few basic steps of Bachata dance. Apparently many have not formally learned social dance and this felt fresh and interesting to them. It was really joyful to see the class having a great time together. But I had to leave early to make up some sleep. (I felt rested on Day #7. )

Day 7 @EDE Class: Field Trip to Huadao Ecological Community

sustainablin Blog, September 5, 2018, 6 Minutes

Sep 2, 2018. We made a field trip to Huadao Ecological Community, a two-year old community project managed by one of our classmates, Ms. Alice Wang. Among the typical three types of ecovillages: converted from an urban neighborhood, converted from a traditional rural village, built brand new based on consensus and commitment, Huadao falls in the third type.

“Enable a fulfilling life” (让生命满载而归), is the commitment to and of, community members. (photo by Lin Fan)

We participated in a ceremony in which we thanked the vegetable seeds (in the basket in the middle of the table). This has been an important ritual of the community. We made sure to arrive in the morning before the soil becomes too warm for the seeds. In this ritual, people feel connected to the seeds, soil, and nature. 

Recently I read this book: “Half Farming, Half X” by a Japanese author 盐见直纪. The idea is that people can live a healthier, happier and self-sufficient life by spending half time growing most of their own food, and the other half time working on things they truly like, i.e. the X. They find this X by what fits their unique talent, interest and skills.

In Huadao, the biggest challenges right now is to get people to live here regularly, so there is a real community! About 40 apartments were bought by member families but no family actually live here. These are the people who have already established life and career elsewhere, mostly in big cities, but who also loved the beautiful idea of an ecological community and were willing to put down then the upfront payment of $58,500 for one apartment. (The price has gone up by 50%). They don’t own the property but has the right of usage for 40 years.

Could “half farming, half X” be a solution for Huadao to attract regular tenants? I have been thinking that such new lifestyle can possibly help ME achieve financial sustainability SOONER, and at the same time I can gain hands-on experience in one of the most critical areas for a sustainable ecosystem, farming. To me as an independent writer/journalist, the X can be many: writing, event organizing, consulting, training, public speaking, and a newly added prospect, ecovillage design.

Huadao appears to be a promising location for the housing and farming part, assuming the rent is lower than that in a big city like Hangzhou and the nearby Chengdu. I like the comfortable inside of a modern apartment, the round building and quadyard that encourages interaction with community members, and the large organic farm (not yet certified). I could spend a few hours each day working in the farm, and the rest of the time reading and writing about sustainability.

But, imagine if I would move in in 3 months, I could be one of a handful, if not the only, warm bodies in the entire building
(They have a few regular staff who also live here), in case they couldn’t attract more life-tinkerers by then. How will I handle that? Not good for long term for sure. But hey! I am an event organizer / community developer too! Will it not be possible for me to help with organizing cultural events to attract urban visitors from the Chengdu, and gradually build a real community here?

That said, will half-farming-half-X here at Huadao work for other self-employed people like me? Before answering that, is Huadao really an ideal location to me? I will need to find out more. My return flight to Hangzhou is a few days after the end of the class. Originally I planned to spend those days in Dujiangyan or Chengdu just for vacation. Why not stay in Huadao and explore more? I immediately talked about this idea with Alice. She was very supportive and agreed to arrange a guest apartment for me. It happens that they will have a management team (founders) meeting on the same day when the EDE class ends. I may be able to meet their team members and learn more. Yay, I have a plan!

The eco-tourism resources nearby can be another attraction to prospective community members. A Party leader of the Qiquan town gave us a short speech to introduce the town and played a well-made introduction film. The area where Huadao is located is designated as an ecological reserve on the west side of the metropolitan Chengdu. It has good natural water and is big in rice production historically. From the film, it appears that local villages have developed good public facilities such as libraries, community activity centers, and remodeled bathrooms and kitchens to connect to sewage pipeline network, all aiming at bringing city-quality of life to rural residents. Many farmers now open their farmhouses, as bed-and-breakfast inns, to tourists who typically look for idyllic country life as a refreshing switch from their big city dwelling. The booming countryside tourism has created new income sources for farmers. They invest even more in their environment. This seems a virtuous cycle.

People of the day

Alice WANG. Alice hosted us in Huadao Ecological Community today. Finally I got to see this ambitious project that she has been working on and shared with us a lot for case study. There is no better time than today to write about her but she stood out from the beginning. She speaks fluent and beautiful English and is a brilliant communicator. Whenever talking about Huadao, she shows a lot of passion and is open to ideas and questions.

Back in 2014, she joined the Commission of Sustainability Development of Beijing International Exchange Association of China, a Beijing NGO specialized in fostering high level exchange between its members and foreign cultural and business parties. She was the secretary of the community. It was through the connections there, she came to know Huadao. Deeply concerning that city children lack connection with nature, she hoped that Huadao can become a safe and beautiful natural playground for children, as well as a new type of community that embraces low-carbon lifestyle. The same year, she became one of the earliest members of the community, through buying an apartment and becoming a limited partner(shareholder) of the company that developed the property. While she was still working full time for her own company, she gradually involved more and more in the development of Huadao, seeing it through hard times of stagnation, disagreement and fortunately re-alignment of vision. Now she is in charge of the entire operation, splitting her time between Beijing and Chengdu so that she can actually live in the community and grow it.

Life here

In the afternoon, some team members visited nearby tourist sites. They saw cute giant pandas.

photo by Kosha Joubert

If you would like to keep following Lin Fan, you can!
I am traveling the back roads now and posts may be intermittent. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. Please help if you can.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Eco-Civ 101

"We are the people who are eating the first crabs."

I have never been terribly fond of cities, but if you had to live in a Chinese megacity, you could do worse than Chengdu. It is the capital of Sichuan Province so you know the food is going to be good. It has been sobriqueted at one time or another as “The God-favored Land,” “Hibiscus City,” “Brocade City,” “Civilized City,” “Garden City,” “World Gastronomic Capital,” and “Model City for Environmental Protection,” whose biggest sightseer draws are the wild herds of pandas. It is also home to 16 million permanent residents, has 20 districts (former cities and towns it swallowed up somewhere along the millennia), is said by Forbes to be the fastest growing city on Earth, and is expected to remain on that blistering pace for at least the next decade. Apart from the pandas, those are not pluses.

Chengdu shared bikes are activated by the WeChat phone app.
The site and name have remained unchanged since at least the time Chengdu became the capital for the 9th Kaiming King of the Shu 2300 years ago. As recently as 2100 years ago it had its first school, called Shishi (“thank you”) built by Governor Wen Weng. According to legend, around the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220), Zhang Daoling, later known as Celestial Master Zhang Tianshi, cultivated and preached the way of the Tao on Mt. Qingcheng, now revered as the birthplace of Taoism.
I am here at the invitation of Mr. Wang Li, Deputy Director of the UNESCO Rural Development Center, to speak of ecovillages in the context of environmental education to the 9th annual meeting of the Dujiangyan International Forum. The theme of this year’s forum is “Harmonizing Urban-rural Education Development in the Context of Education 2030.” I honestly expected most of the speeches to be real snoozers (not a heavy lift after 20+ hours of air travel), given titles like “Let Education Be Implanted with the Green Heart and Share the Beautiful Earth,” but I was in for a real surprise. The first talk, by the deputy director of an academic committee of some Chinese university, had me hanging on every word.
To be fair, Wen Tiejun had every right to be outspoken. As a teenager at the time of the Cultural Revolution he was yanked from school and sent out to a gruesome life of menial labor on a remote collective farm, along with his parents, who were being punished for being intellectuals. Later in life he won a favored party position and as a policy developer gained a mastery of Maoist language and framing. This was how his 30-minute opening keynote at the forum could be so devastating.
Bear in mind that this is an event far into the interior of China, co-sponsored by a UN Agency and the Chinese government. I almost could not believe what I was hearing. I had to start scribbling notes. 

Wen Tiejun
One of the themes of this forum is equalizing the educational opportunities of rural and urban regions. Many of the presenters prepared talks on bringing rural students into the digital age, or using cyber enhancements to improve pedagogy. Wen called that moving from a colonial knowledge system to a neocolonial exploitive system. It is the old paradigm of “development-ism,” he said: “colonization, overproduction, overconsumption, capitalization of the economy.” Developed countries were going all over the world and paying vast sums in “foreign aid” to “propagate the crisis.” It was the same mentality that brought about World War II, he said. First you build massive arsenals so you can build massive industrial infrastructure, then you have to use it, destroy it, and build newer and bigger replacements. 
“We need a decolonial policy,” he demanded, taking indirect aim at Li Xaoping’s Belt and Road initiative. He told the assembly that if you want rural revitalization you need to put the culture back into agriculture. You need ecological agriculture, farmer rights, and a bottom-up love for environmental sustainability. 
The former author of Maoist slogans ticked off the list of recent Chinese government slogans:
· Integrate Urban and Rural (2002)
· Scientific Development (2004)
· A Harmony Society (2004)
· Multifunction Agriculture (2006)
· Eco-Civilization (2007)
· Inclusive Growth (2009)
If you want to put meaning into meaningless slogans, he said, think about an eco-civilization that means local resource sovereignty, multidiversity solidarity, and sustainable ecological safety. What China was doing instead, he complained, was adopting an Anglo-American model of very destructive neocolonialism. It destroys the fabric of culture, soils and health. “Modernization is a trap.” 
Giving an example, he said the East Asian Land Reform initiative went from ideals of Confucius (good governance arises from good-hearted people) and community stability to the largest percentage of the population becoming petty bourgeois and omni-destructive consumerists. What was cast as land reform ended up destabilizing Asia—most dramatically India—separating rich and poor, pushing a third of the population into landless, jobless poverty, threatening two thirds of the states with growing insurrections, and making 90 percent of those who counted themselves employed no more than slaves of an unstable grey economy, all the while accelerating pollution, land degradation and climate change. 
Wen shows strawbale houses being built by volunteers as an example of what rural China needs more of.
I was looking around the room and trying to see if anyone else was as dumbstruck as I was, but they applauded Wen’s candor. This is not your daddy’s China anymore.
In March 2018 China amended its constitution to include the advancement to Eco-civilization as a duty of government at all levels.
UNESCO Office Director of the International Training Center for Rural Education Zhao Yuchi, seated next to me, leaned over and said, “We are the people who are eating the first crabs.”
I am traveling the back roads now and posts may be intermittent. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. Please help if you can.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Angels in Carbon Paradise

"Being co-evolutionary, Gaia tried to keep pace with our evolution but lately has given that up and gone its own way."

My friend Clinton Callahan plays around with game theory. In his latest communication he says whether we think about it much or not, we all play the game of picking a favorite illusionary paradise. 
We use them a lot in our everyday lives. You can make an illusionary paradise by finding a few bits of evidence to support an attractive upperworld story, middleworld story, or underworld story that you want to dive into. An upperworld illusionary paradise might be that you are serving something greater than yourself, or that you are protected by angels, or that peace on Earth is possible.
The same illusion compels jihadi suicide bombers and Navy SEALs. Honestly, we probably all fall prey to it at one time or another — our tribal altruism predisposes to an optimistic world view. Callahan continues: 
“A middleworld illusionary paradise might be that you have a successful and secure career, a wonderful working relationship, or a perfectly healthy body. An underworld illusionary paradise that your Gremlin might want to dive into is that you are the best, that you can win the fight going on in your head with an enemy, and that your plans for revenge will succeed!”
If we don’t see ourselves in these, chances are you at least see someone you know. We all have choices at any moment to choose the paradise we are in or pop out of that one and into a new one. Maybe we have hybrid scenarios that take pieces from each of the genres.
You can see illusionary paradises around you each day in all three worlds. You can create an illusionary underworld paradises and call it an argument, or perhaps a reason to criticize yourself to feel the familiar mixed emotion of shame. It all depends on what the parts in you are hungry for.
Callahan’s point, and I have to say I resonate, is not to take any of this too seriously. You could say we are in “uncertain times” but that is really too generous. Most likely we are now in end times, or what Al Gore likes to call “a nature walk through the Book of Revelations.”

Callahan and I differ in that he thinks developing your gaming skills is going to help building a new culture, creating new paradigms that make the existing paradigms irrelevant, while I think the notion that we are at the dawning of an Age of Aquarius is why these paradises are all illusions. We are, if not the last human generation, among the last.

If that seems too cynical, I am happy to say I could be wrong. We might get our act together and turn it around, who knows? And on that slim glimmer of a possibility hangs the reason I went to Wilmington for a week to attend the international conference of the US Biochar Initiative.

And by the same slim hope I will be teaching and touring in China these next few weeks and may miss posting here during that time, depending on access.

Given the fact that biochar is probably the only serious, non-illusory solution to catastrophic climate change, the biochar conference was sparsely attended. It was also pretty wonky, which helps explain why fewer than one hundred people were filling a space designed for tens of thousands.

I could go on to predict that this will soon change, but that is my illusory paradise speaking.
About 40 percent of those attending #Biochar2018 were scholars, another 40 percent were industry suits, and the rest, like me, just wandered in out of curiosity.

I was there for a few reasons, actually. Kathleen Draper and I have a book, Carbon Cascades, coming out from Chelsea Green this winter that duty calls us to promote, although these were probably people who will buy it anyway. I am at the moment researching biodegradable plastics, and those came up in a number of presentations. And, the number of new applications for biochar and the sheer speed at which it is capable of reversing climate change (taking atmospheric CO2 concentrations from 410 parts per million today back to a more survivable pre-industrial 260 parts per million within this century) are always exciting to discover and fool myself into thinking we might actually use.

The conference, despite being more regional in nature (another regional conference in Southeast Asia/Oceania happened just last week), drew people from Sweden, Germany, Australia, China and places other far flung contrails away. My plastics curiosity was well rewarded by Joseph James of AgriTech, who showed microscopy of recycled polymer resins bonding with the carbon matrix of biochar.

My illusory paradise was engaged by Björn Embren’s amazing keynote on the Stockholm Biochar Project. The way Embren told it, his city government had become concerned at how its urban forest was suffering from the effects of climate change, pollution, and over-paving of the roots of trees that lined the streets. After some investigation, they began trials with biochar and were astonished by the results. New cherry trees set in alongside permeable sidewalks, for instance, grew such dense canopies that you could not see through them after just a few months, something that had never occurred before. 

100-year-old city tree in Stockholm without biochar (courtesy Björn Embren)

Stockholm began expanding its biochar program, using it to fill storm drainage systems, then road under-pavement, and then making their own chars from municipal wastes, solving several problems at the same time. The biochar cleaned their waste, cleaned their water, cleaned their air, permanently and verifiably sequestered carbon massively, and cooled the city (Stockholm, like many other European cities, set new heat records in 2018).

If like me you are solutions oriented, here were many promising answers to some of our most pressing problems, and many of the more interesting conversations at the meeting happened in the corridors between presentations. Many people are wondering, like I am, out loud, for 50 years or more, whether homo sapiens is really up to all its self-imposed challenges. They become much more obvious and impossible to ignore each year, but actually have been with us a very long time. We spent hundreds of thousands of years after developing language and writing using symbols to help us connect to the natural world. We married our symbology to our symbiology. For a very long time we were extractive only to the degree that the whole could easily rebalance and recover from our impact.

All that changed around 8000 years ago, as keynote speaker David Montgomery told the assembly. We went from being more nomadic, with few possessions, an incomprehension for material wealth, the impracticality of schlepping around too many nursing babies, and the absence of cities and armies, to becoming predominantly sedentary, agrarian, capitalistic, militaristic, authoritarian urbanists. At first by baby steps, and then by giant leaps, we separated from the natural world. Being co-evolutionary, Gaia tried to keep pace with our evolution but lately has given that up and gone its own way. That way is to remove us.

So, even though we clever wizards of the material world may be able to find small solutions to the problems that vex us, we will still need to deal with that bigger one: the separation.

We will need to devolve back to living in harmony with Earth, assuming she will still allow us back at this point. Being an optimist most of the time, I attend events like this assuming we will do that, and when we do, we will also get around to fixing some of the broken bits we have left trailing behind.

Maybe that requires illusionary paradise, but there are worse ways to go through life.


Carbon Cascades, my newest book, is now in production. Donors at the Power Up! tier on my Patreon page receive an autographed copy off the first press run. All donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how I make this happen. Please help if you can. I will be teaching in China for most of September 2018 and may not be able to monitor and approve comments or publish during that period. Regular readers please bear with me — I will be back.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Slow Thinking

"Plastics and climate change have a lot in common with a broken Maytag."

 The sudden emergence of plastic in the 20th Century caught evolutionary biology by surprise. The same might be said of the atomic bomb, but there the threat was more visceral.Human brains aren’t wired to respond easily to large, slow-moving threats.

According to a 2014 article in The Guardian:
“Our brain is essentially a get-out-of-the-way machine,” Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard best known for his research into happiness, told audiences at Harvard Thinks Big 2010. “That’s why we can duck a baseball in milliseconds.”
While we have come to dominate the planet because of such traits, he said, threats that develop over decades rather than seconds circumvent the brain’s alarm system. “Many environmentalists say climate change is happening too fast. No, it’s happening too slowly. It’s not happening nearly quickly enough to get our attention.”
Humans are saddled with other shortcomings, too. “Loss aversion” means we’re more afraid of losing what we want in the short-term than surmounting obstacles in the distance. Our built-in “optimism bias” irrationally projects sunny days ahead in spite of evidence to the contrary. To compound all that, we tend to seek out information not for the sake of gaining knowledge for its own sake, but to support our already-established viewpoints.
I discussed two types of cognitive bias — confirmation and normalcy — in my November 24, 2011 post:
In the case of the former, we sentient bipeds with tripartite brains actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms our views of the world — views we mostly formed as children as we “aped” our parents and teachers or our inspiring leaders and celebrities. Our fondness towards normalcy lets us box out things that make us feel uncomfortable and allows us to focus on ways to blend into the crowd. If the crowd thinks peak oil, climate change, JFK’s assassination or the inside job at the World Trade Center are just weird conspiracy theories by crazies at the fringe of our society, we ape the crowd. That’s just Sapiens’ Social Software.
Considering that human minds are capable of great feats of irrationality, is there really much hope we will respond quickly enough to the emerging, but slow moving, threats of plastics, environmental radioactivity, petrocollapse or climate change?
“Paranoia? Of course not. It’s alternative scholarship. What’s wrong with teaching alternative theories in our schools? What are liberals so afraid of? … Why this dictatorial approach to learning anyway? What gives teachers the right to say what things are? Who’s to say that flat-earthers are wrong? Or that the Church was wrong to silence Galileo, with his absurd theory (actually written by his proctologist) that the earth moves around the sun. Citing ‘evidence’ is so snobbish and élitist. I think we all know what lawyers can do with evidence.”
— Eric Idle, Who Wrote Shakespeare

We are accustomed to most threats to our well-being being reversible or avoidable. We are accustomed to them emerging with ample warning, so we have time to consider and need only act once a problem becomes big enough or close enough to be really, really, scary.

Our linear cognition evolved before we came down from the trees, when you could plot a course three branches ahead, like Tarzan, but if you projected your mental map  to a fourth branch there was a good chance you might miss the nearest one while you were so deep in thought.

Bobby Fisher could see more chess moves ahead than Boris Spassky. We need more of his genes amongst us. But Spassky had three children and some number of grandchildren and Fisher died childless..

Nonlinearity and quantum phenomena puzzle us. How is it that prey can sense they are being observed even when there is no sight, sound or smell to reveal their predator? Our pattern recognition only extends to “as before so thereafter,” or even “after this, therefore because of this” (ie: “stocks were down today on growing discomfort from trade sanctions”). We can’t ken that when something jingles over here, something unrelated jangles over there. Surely a just God would assign cause! Have we angered Him?

So it is that when ice in the Arctic describes a superlinear melt curve, or record-breaking wildfires level whole neighborhoods in California, we are so dumbfounded we are more than willing to accept that “Its just the weather, stupid.”

We prefer to take complex phenomena and break them into categories so we can assign pidgeonholes. Fuzzy continua get broken into inches and pounds.

In the appendix to their seminal paper in PNAS August 6, 17 scientists aligning the Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene included a table of progress humanity has been making since adopting the Paris Agreement on climate change. There are pluses and minuses, but the shortfalls are pretty glaring.
  • Biodiversity loss and biosphere degradation continues in most regions.
  • Emissions from livestock still increasing.
  • Although cement industry has made commitments to lower CO2 intensity, no signs of slower growth. 
  • Rising incomes in many regions are increasing per capita consumption.
  • Little progress globally to change consumer attitudes and business practices towards waste.
  • High fertility in some countries means that although rates are slowing, population growth will continue until at least mid-century.
  • Governing conventions are disconnected from trade agreements; aviation and shipping emissions are still exempt.
  • Renewable energy has augmented energy growth, not reduced carbon dependence. Fossil fuels continue to increase in both supply and demand and are projected to continue that gradual rise through mid-century.
Like our bridges and dams, Earth systems are showing serious repair deficits. It is as though you have a 1960s Maytag washer that worked just fine until a couple years ago but since then has developed an erratic wobble that is getting progressively worse. Now every time you do your laundry it rattles the windows upstairs and shakes the dishes in your kitchen cabinets. You’d like to repair or replace it, but you don’t have the spare cash to do that, so you just keep loading it up and hoping it doesn’t shake apart. One of these days, it will.

Plastics and climate change have a lot in common with a broken Maytag. None of the three would be insoluble problems if humans were Vulcans. You know, logical.

We are not. Rather, we still go on reptilian impulse — ignore distant threats but display hair-trigger awareness of immediate ones. Not making the rent this month is an immediate threat. Locking Earth into a million-year Hothouse is so distant as to be of little concern.

It’s the same with plastics. They crept up slowly on us. Before plastics, if you couldn’t afford a toilet seat, you sat or squatted on wooden boards. After plastics, everyone could afford a nice comfy seat. Before plastics, you washed cloth diapers. After plastics, you never had to touch those, never mind scrubbing them or dealing with where it went.

To do away with plastics now would force us to go back to expensive toilets and cloth diapers wouldn’t it? What would we use to charge our iPhones? Cotton-wrapped wire?

Actually, it really is much simpler to get rid of plastics than to have to deal with climate change. We can make biodegradable plastics or substitutes and they don’t cost any more the other kind. We don’t, because to demand replacement requires we see the long-term impact of that plastic persistence — its manufactured invulnerability — while to keep buying plastic requires little thought at all. Rationalization, by virtue of its ubiquity, is socially acceptable.

This part of our psyche is probably our biggest Achilles Heel as a species. We have others, like our need to achieve, acquire, produce and consume in order to gain self-respect and the respect of our tribe, or hubris, or our opposable thumbs. But our threat-discounting ability is the real killer.

Until we grew to be 7 billion, going on 8, the world was big enough that there was somewhere we could think of as away. Most of the world was ocean. Cities could barge their trash out to sea and just dump it. Now even the oceans are too small. They are finite, while homo colossus’ capacity to consume and pollute is exponential. Sooner or later, and later is now, those two rates have to meet.
What can you do? Do without. Reject plastic in your life.

It can start by simply refusing to be served a single use plastic straw. It can move to buying only wooden toys and home furnishings. Bag groceries in paper, if not reusable cloth. Encourage anyone who is inventing biodegradables by buying their products. If there is to be a future, this is where it begins.

And while we do that with plastics, we have to also do it with fossil fuels.

We should also encourage chess champions to marry.


This is another installment in what I expect to be a long, albeit perhaps intermittent, string of essays on plastic, with the goal of eventually producing a book. Donors at the Power Up! tier on my Patreon page receive an autographed copy off the first press run. All donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how I make this happen. Please help if you can.




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