Category Archives: Sustainable Lifestyles

The Fallacy of “My Part Doesn’t Count”

An oddly appropriate historical photo to help you visualize my wagon analogy.

An old photo to help you visualize my wagon analogy.

I’ve heard the exact same argument three or four times in the last few days, in what seems like a strange coincidence. To wit, “because my part is small, it doesn’t matter”. I heard an economist on NPR the other day discussing a potential carbon tax in Vermont, and he was saying that Vermont is so small compared to the rest of the world that cutting our emissions would have no measurable effect, so we should just skip the tax. Then I saw the argument in one of the Wait But Why posts, where the author discusses the cruelty of factory farming, but admits that he still eats meat from factory farms, even though he knows that “if everyone thought that way nothing would ever change”. Then there was David Brooks’ article about climate change yesterday, where he discounted a nationwide carbon tax in the U.S., on the grounds that it would have no measurable effect worldwide (which probably isn’t true).

These statements are actually difficult to counter, because they are related to what economists call the “free-rider problem”. Namely, that if someone else pays a price, and you can skip the price and yet still get the service, then it is in your rational interest to do so. Unfortunately, in the case of most sustainability issues, not acting is also a prescription for failure. Continue reading

One Powerful Way to Change the World

“Systems should exist to serve society, and right now our capitalist system is not serving society, it is serving shareholders.” —Jay Coen Gilbert, Co-founder of B-Lab.

Fair trade matters.

Fair trade matters.

How you spend your money matters. We vote once a year for politicians, but we vote virtually every day with our dollars. And how we cast those dollar-votes really, really matters.

Every single time we spend money on a product we are reaching out with our economic power and acting on the world, often in places that are far, far away. Our dollars can support deforestation, the inhumane treatment of animals, pollution, sweatshop labor, or all manner of social ills, but they can also support fair wages, care for the environment, or community development, depending on our spending choices. These are REAL EFFECTS, and they are there whether we choose to see them or not. Continue reading

It’s ALL Individual Action

It all comes down to... you. And me. And other individuals.

It all comes down to… you. And me. And other individuals.

Here’s why individual action matters—because it’s ALL individual action. It’s individual action, and only individual action, that will solve our problems. Here’s what I mean by that—National Geographic’s current issue focuses on climate change, and in their article “How to Fix It”, they have sections for actions that individuals can take, and then more sections about actions that businesses, cities, nations, and the world can take, as if there’s “us”, and then other entities beyond “us”. But it’s all “us”, when you really look at it.

Their first section on individual action is clear enough; we can all make changes. And, those changes can be dramatic—our family has made changes to our house and transportation systems that are saving about 3,000 gallons of fossil fuel a year, compared to the lifestyle that we were living ten years ago. We can all reduce consumption, and invest in efficiency, and vote with our dollars with regard to what we choose to purchase, and vote with our ballots for political leaders who are committed to moving us along in a better direction, and educate ourselves, and refocus our lives in meaningful directions. Continue reading

The Once-a-Year-or-So Blog Reflection

My future office, after I quit real life.

My future office, after I quit real life.

Whew. I’ve been crazy-busy lately, with all manner of “normal life” tasks; everything from finishing our unfinished pantry, to running kids to this activity and that, or working with the afterschool clubs at work, etc. Thus, I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about sustainability, as always, but not that much actual writing. I jot my musings down on scraps of paper, and they end up in a pile on my desk.

Then, in the middle of all of this, I found another blog that I really like, “Wait But Why“, which gives me yet another thing to do. But, their posts about artificial intelligence, and EV’s, and several others are right in line with the topics I write about here, along with a few, like their post on procrastination, that aren’t, but that one does apply to me personally (and is both freakily accurate and humorous). Their main writer, Tim Urban, appears to read, research, and write nearly full-time, while his partner runs the “business side” of their blog, which appears to include ads on their pages, and some sort of sales of retail items related to their topics. Now, I’m pretty envious of this idea, especially as I struggle along with real life and kids and work, when I would dearly, dearly love to sit and read, research, think, and write every day, and play with fruit trees and permaculture swales. BUT, and here’s my main point of the day… Continue reading

A Nice Easy Change

water bottles cropped

The new Styrofoam…

A very quick post here; I’m still travelling, and I’ve been too busy to research or ponder the myriad sustainability topics that are accruing on my mental list, among them soil erosion in Spain, new attitudes about sustainability in Texas, scientific reports on global warming trends, analyses that shows that half of the earth’s biomass is gone, and the problem of mesquite trees, just to name a few. I’ll be back home in a week, and can resume a more normal reading and writing pace. Until then, here’s a quick post about a nice easy change everyone could make—buy and use a stainless-steel water bottle. My wife and I and the kids all picked one up on this trip, because we were tired of creating trash every time we wanted to stop while driving in order to get something to drink. And… it works like a charm. Both of the bottles in the picture are a double-walled insulated type, and they really keep liquids cool or hot. Plus, cold liquids don’t make them sweat on the outside, even on a hot muggy day.

So, I drive along when travelling, pull off at a McDonalds, go in and ask for a large unsweetened tea, but I hold up the water bottle and tell the person at the register that I don’t need a cup, because “I’ll just put it in here”. It works like a charm. A bit of ice, a whole bottle of tea, and off I go, no Styrofoam cup or trash. You could do the same thing with soda at most fast-food restaurants, or with water at water fountains anywhere. Anyway, bottom line—it isn’t always convenient or possible to bring drinks with you from home, and this is a nice easy way to avoid all kinds of single-use plastics and trash.

Small changes, but they all add up…


Two Sides of the Very Same Coin

zero_waste_home_jacket_500You have to admit, that of all the staggering statistics about plastic in my last post, that the one that probably stayed with you was that small statistic at the end, when I discussed how Bea Johnson was able to reduce the trash output for her family of four to one quart for a whole year. In our modern world, that seems nearly impossible. So I read her book, just to see how she did it. AND, lo and behold, guess what’s behind the one-quart achievement? Minimalism, though she doesn’t really call it that. It turns out that trash reduction and Minimalism are just two sides of the very same coin. In fact, other “sides of the coin” could also include plastics reduction, energy conservation, healthier living, money savings, and perhaps even time savings; all very-related aspects of the same general impetus of living more intentionally.

So, Johnson and her husband first devoted themselves to shrinking, in a thoughtful way, their material possessions and footprint. They moved to a much smaller house that was within walking distance of nearby amenities, dropped down to one vehicle, and decluttered all the rooms in their house. They cut down to a bare minimum of clothes, to only the necessary items in the kitchen, and they reduced their electronic distractions, in return for more time spent as a family and less time tending to their material possessions. When they were done paring down, THEN she turned her attention to minimizing waste. And once you realize how she did this part it seems rather obvious. You can’t “disappear” trash once it’s in your home, so you have to NOT BRING IT HOME. Johnson spent a large amount of time figuring out her methods (she initially was striving for zero trash AND zero recycling, but found that to be too high of a hurdle in terms of her sanity, so they have settled for striving for zero trash and very-low recycling), but, once she perfected her system, it doesn’t seem that difficult. Now, this post is only a very short summary of the family’s endeavors, but the Johnsons bring reusable containers and bags of various sorts with them when they go shopping for food, and shop mostly in the bulk, produce, and deli sections of their local natural-food stores. She then cooks meals from these wholesome ingredients, using a list of recipes that she has selected that can be made with the bulk foods that she has available. The family buys used clothing and other used goods when they can, and for many household items, such as basic cosmetics and toothpaste, she makes her own.

Want to see how it’s done? A great little video about Lauren Singer, a resident of New York City, who also lives a zero-waste lifestyle—

In short, Bea Johnson summarizes her method as the “Five R’s”– Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (compost). And, she stresses that these efforts need to occur in that particular order. I won’t try to recap all of her material here, but I did want to include a couple of her points–

— We should avoid advertising and marketing. I was surprised to see a discussion of advertising in this book about trash, but it made sense when I though about it. In fact, a quote from the book is in order here—

“Media exposure (television, magazines) and leisure shopping can provide a great deal of inspiration; however, the targeted marketing that funds the former and the clever merchandising that promotes the latter tend to make us feel unfit, uncool, and inadequate. These feelings make it easy to succumb to temptations in order to satisfy perceived needs. Controlling our exposure can have a tremendous effect not just on our consumption but also on our happiness. Find satisfaction with what you already have.”

–Once you realize that your actions and consumption are having negative consequences, then you really only have a few choices—you can deny that it is happening, you can lapse into “eco-depression”, or you can begin to change and take action. And if you don’t think that you can go as far as Bea Johnson did, I would posit that any action is better than no action, and some of them are really quite easy. For instance, it’s not all that hard to quit using single-use plastic shopping bags, or to quit putting your compostable material in the trash. And once you’re comfortable with that, then you could take further steps. Every little bit matters.

Minimalism = less to deal with.

Minimalism = less to deal with.

So, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed in the last week, after reading three consecutive books about trash and recycling, is that average Americans create trash in incredible volumes, and nearly thoughtlessly. Disposability has become ingrained in our culture, even though it’s a recent addition. A concerted effort to reserve that trend may be long overdue.

Note, May 2016: After a year of paying attention to packaging and zero-trash, I’ve arrived at a more nuanced view of the subject, see this post, “No Perfect System—Yet“.

Minimalism image credit: Tommerton2010, Flickr Creative Commons.

Plastic Trash and Whack-a-Mole

“A year’s worth of [the world’s production of] plastic would outweigh a navy of more than five-hundred Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest ships ever built…” —Edward Humes, author of “Garbology”

plastic trash

No place is too remote for plastic trash. Plastic items on the beaches of Laysan Island, in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. As unsightly as this is, the biggest problems may stem from the plastic in the ocean that we don’t see, that which has been broken into innumerable floating bits.

l’m reading a book I just came across, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash”, by Edward Humes. I’m not quite finished yet, but it has definitely made me think. Here’s a some of these trash-thoughts, and a few others that I’ve had lately—

— Well, this first one is a no-brainer, but we could all create less waste. We are emerging from a profligate era of abundance, where consumption was glorified, and where trash could be set by the curb and made to just disappear (but not really). We are rapidly reaching the end of that era, and are entering a time where we will need to husband every resource, and live very intentionally, lest we irreversibly damage our planet and the life on it. Humes proposes one way to think about this “waste”—that we need to quit thinking about that word as a noun, but rather to think of it as a verb, because what we put into the trash is often the result of wasteful activity or processes; it is “waste” in several senses of the word. It takes energy and resources to mine or grow or otherwise produce and ship all those items that go into the trash, and more energy and resources and effort and money and nature destruction to get them to the landfill and make them “disappear”. Just the fact that this pattern is not circular, but is a one-way trip, makes this activity inherently wasteful. Humes calculates that every American will produce 102 tons of trash in his or her lifetime (other countries do better, on the whole), much of it caused by excess or wasteful consumption patterns. Much of this “trash” isn’t really trash, but rather material that could be separated from the waste stream. Which leads me to my next point…

garbology book— Large percentages of what we do dispose of could be recycled or composted. According to Humes, the average American’s trash, by weight, consists of 28% paper, 14% food, 14% yard waste, 12% plastics, 9% metals, 8% rubber or textiles, 7% wood, 5% glass, and 4% “other”. Again, no rocket-science is required here—the paper, plastics, metals, and glass can all be more-or-less readily recycled, and the food waste, yard waste, and wood can all be composted. Even conservatively, this appears to be more than 80% of the waste stream. Imagine every trash truck or train having its volume reduced by 80 percent! Now, recycling is great, but recycling alone doesn’t really absolve us from environmental impact (and there was a very similar message in the book “Junkyard Planet”, my post here); even recycling has its limits and costs. So, back to point number one—the best trash is the trash that never got created in the first place. But if it has to be disposed of, then recycling is far better than the landfill.

— Composting is more important than I previously thought. I had come to this realization before I read this particular book, and have actually been meaning to write a post about it. Here’s why—a few years ago I considered composting to be a relatively minor part of living sustainably, something that was great to do and could create a few pots of good soil for the garden, but wasn’t going to play some huge role in saving the planet. I might be wrong about that, for several reasons. First, composting creates fertile planting material, but it also helps close the nutrient loop; an important permaculture principle. Second, it appears that over a third of typical trash could be composted, which could prevent it from having to be landfilled, and thereby save all of those costs. But perhaps the most important reason is that if organic material does get buried in a landfill it decomposes anaerobically, which produces methane, a gas that is more than twenty times more potent than CO2, in terms of global warming. So, positives on one side, big negatives on the other—this makes composting pretty important (…and some cities are making it mandatory).

— Plastics are forever. And they’re wonderful. And they’re horrible. They’re wonderful because they’re incredibly useful. Plastic products are inexpensive and nearly infinitely versatile, which is why over 50 million tons of plastics are produced every year, according to Humes. We use plastics for food wrap and dashboards and buttons and kayaks and literally millions of other products. BUT, virtually every piece of plastic that has ever been made is still around, and when those plastics get into the ocean, as they invariably do, they cause really big problems, and will perhaps cause even more problems in the future that we can’t yet foresee. Ingested (because plastics are often mistaken for food by wildlife), they kill birds and turtles and fish. The animals die and decompose, releasing the plastics to be ingested yet again. Plastics wash up on beaches, absorb organic pollutants, and break down into tiny pieces that turn huge expanses of ocean into what Hume calls “plastic chowder”. It’s an absolutely huge, and growing, problem, with some researchers calculating that over 150 million tons of plastics are now in the ocean, with more washing in every year. (One organization working on this problem is; there is a lot of material on their website.)

Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.

Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.

So, to recap—we could probably “waste” dramatically less, more of what we do have to dispose of could be recycled or composted, and plastics are causing some big problems. And I would guess that most of this isn’t particularly surprising to most people. But here’s the bigger question—what does this mean to me, as someone who is trying to morph their lifestyle and habits into something approaching “sustainable”? A bit of inspiration might come from Beth Terry’s book, “Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Habit and You Can Too”.

Plastic-free---possible but difficult?

Plastic-free—possible but difficult?

I glanced through it the other day, and might read it soon. Another book, “Zero Waste Home”, by Bea Johnson, details her family’s methods that enable them to only make one quart (!) of garbage in a year. But here’s what I suspect—that reducing one’s trash burden, whether or not one is making a specific effort to reduce plastics, requires a bit of effort and attention. It might come down to being a matter of time and convenience, because in many cases, doing things in ways that create trash is just easier. If this is true, then it might be a problem, because in my life trying to do things in a sustainable way is starting to feel like playing “Whack-a-Mole”. For the last six months I’ve felt like I can to this thing the right way, or that thing the right way, but not everything, because they all take time, and I run out of time. For instance, cooking more is a good pattern for all kinds of reasons, but as I got busy last fall with the solar project, I found myself cooking less and eating out more, or eating foods that were pre-prepared in some way. Likewise with gardening, and the bees, and cutting firewood, and minimizing my belongings, and myriad other aspects of my life—I’m not sure I have time to do them all. Now, in the Amazon write-up for Bea Johnson’s book, it says that after reducing their trash to near zero that “…their overall quality of life has changed for the better: they now have more time together, they’ve cut their annual spending by a zero_waste_home_jacket_500remarkable forty percent, and they are healthier than they’ve ever been…” I might have to read this book next, instead of the one about plastic reduction, because it doesn’t do us all any good to know what we should be doing, but not have the time to do it. Much to contemplate, and I suspect I’ll be revisiting this topic…





Opening quote—emphasis mine.
Beach image credit: Susan White, USFWS, Flickr Creative Commons.
Seal: NOAA, National Ocean Service Image Gallery.


The Promise of Permaculture, Part Two

“Permaculture needs to be based on reality… that’s real design, vs. play design. We need to get real…” —Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture.

The soil---the foundation of nearly everything.

Rich, fertile, soil, full of life—the foundation of nearly everything.

I was talking to a friend about soil yesterday, and describing that industrial-ag, soil-destruction sequence that I was discussing in my last post. He was really following along with me, and then, after much discussion, asked the question—“So what do we do about it?” Well, that part is complicated. And here’s where we get to the permaculture part, because permaculture is really at the exact other end of the spectrum from that industrial cornfield.

An example—if you take a piece of land, and manage the flows of water across it, and plant it with a wide variety of plants, and quit tilling the soil, and make sure that nutrients aren’t leaving the system, then that system will become progressively richer, more fertile, and more full of life. Life begets life. If left alone, nature will do much of this on its own. But, and here’s the “a-ha” moment that Bill Mollison had a half century ago that led him to develop what we call permaculture today—with just the right interactions, humans can accelerate this process. And, with proper design choices, the system can be made to provide abundantly for people, at the same time it grows richer and more diverse. From these ideas came Bill Mollison’s three ethics of permaculture—earth care, people care, and the return of surplus to the system. By the way, a trailer for a new film about the subject—

Now, I won’t try to explain all of permaculture here (though the trailer above actually gives a pretty good overview), but suffice it to say that permaculture methods can indeed be used to create little Gardens of Eden. The systems can vary in size, from small urban balconies, to homesteads with enough acreage to approach food self-sufficiency, to larger farms run by many people. The dream of the permaculture community is for these paradigms to become the norm, and for the human presence on the planet to become regenerative, healing the planet and all the life on it. Permaculturists typically seem to envision a reduced-energy future, with reduced consumption, much fewer material goods, but with a richer and more meaningful existence.

And, it is at this point in the train-of-thought that I begin to grimace just a bit, because the narrative begins to break down. For those of you that have been with me for a while, you’ll recognize the issue right away, because I’ve written about it repeatedly, from the very beginning. In short, we can’t all be self-sufficient (see post, “The Amish Question“). We can, with lots of work and plenty of knowledge, and if we happen to have land, approach food self-sufficiency. But we can’t be self-sufficient in clothing, and metals, and electronics, and solar panels, and PVC pipes, or electric fence chargers, or window glass, or any of the thousand others things that go into a food-self-sufficient homestead, not to mention medical care and education and government. Now, some of us can approach food self-sufficiency, and that’s good for the planet. The more permaculture yards and homesteads and farms we have, the better (see my post, “The Role of Self-Sufficiency“). But we can’t all spend our lives on permaculture homesteads, we still need doctors and teachers and researchers and people making clothing and shoes and steel, etc. And, those people will likely live in or near cities. City-dwellers can grow some of their food in urban balconies and street medians and empty lots, but this production won’t come close to feeding the urban population. Cities, as they have throughout history, will depend on the countryside around them. Food will flow in, and wastes will flow out (and, in the future, renewable energy will also be made in “the country”, and flow in).

So, it follows logically that we will therefore need farms that can produce food. And they can’t be like today’s industrial farms, because these methods are ruining the soil. What we need is for the ideas of permaculture to be scaled-up, and for the labor productivity of permaculture to be increased. Humans with hoes and wheelbarrows are usually lucky to feed themselves; we need mechanized farming operations that can feed many times more people than it took to produce the food. Fortunately we have some moves in that direction, moves that answer my friend’s question of “So what do we do about it?”.

I can best illustrate this, I think, with a series of videos. The first of these— “The Difference in Tilled and No-till Soils”. If you’re in a hurry, fast forward to 3:30, though what you’ll see will be amazing enough that you’ll want to back it up and get the details.

So, a dramatic demonstration of what tilling does to the soil. Now, here’s a video about the “no-till” part, where farmers sow cover crops, and then “terminate” them just prior to planting their cash crops–

These methods are much better than tilling, BUT, if you didn’t catch it, these farmers are still using glyphosate (“RoundUp”) to accomplish the “termination” part; to kill the cover crop prior to planting the main crop. But, there are other ways to do this—cover crops can be crimped or rolled, they can be mowed, or they can be grazed. Here’s the next step in my series, a farmer named Gabe Brown, from North Dakota, who has become something of a guru in the world of those concerned about soil.

Now, I don’t think Gabe Brown thinks of himself as a “permaculturist”, but he’s getting pretty close whether he realizes it or not. Nearly all of the elements are here—diversity, design systems that imitate nature, earth care, return of surplus. But he’s a large-scale farmer and rancher, and he farms for a living. Now, Gabe Brown mostly uses grazing to terminate his cover crops, but he also still uses some glyphosate (in another video he discusses how how is trying to quit using herbicides altogether, but still uses some, what he described as “one pass every few seasons”). Nevertheless, his system is amazing, and could, and should, be widely implemented. (Among other things, it could eliminate the confinement feeding of beef, and all the environmental damage that flows, literally, from that industry). So, is it possible to farm like this, and completely eliminate the use of glyphosate? It is indeed, and it is being called “pasture-cropping”. It was developed in Australia by a farmer named Colin Seis. Watch him tell his story—

Here we are approaching a system that is natural, holistic, diverse, and can be accomplished without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Again, very close to permaculture.

One last video here, a farmer I’ve written about before, Mark Shepard (post, “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“), who actually does refer to himself as a permaculturist. This one is long, but really explains the entire ball of wax—

So, to sum up—cover crops, mob grazing, plant and animal diversity, care of the soil, pasture-cropping, silvopasture, alley-cropping, regenerative systems, all on a larger scale. These are all being done today, for profit; these aren’t homesteaders trying to approach self-sufficiency. In the words of Mark Shepard, these farmers are “getting real”, and that’s the real promise of permaculture.

Earthworm image credit: “20071017_123755” by yama_hokkaido, Flickr Creative Commons.

The Lure of Alternative Economies

Capitalism, perhaps not fundamentally different? A London street.

Capitalism, perhaps not fundamentally different from the village market? Business in London.

Our planet has some big problems, and we humans are heading down a dangerous path. Inequities, abuses, unfairness and destruction abound. When faced with all of this, I often see people or groups who almost reflexively start to imagine kinder, gentler paths. They imagine economic systems where good people work hard and treat each other fairly, in families, in small groups, in small towns and villages, and ultimately across the globe. They imagine fairness and generosity and some measure of equality, both in opportunity and outcomes. They imagine the earth and our natural systems being prized and valued, along with spirituality and community, and they imagine an end to our current fixation on material goods. Often, as they’re imagining, they picture people living with some level of self-sufficiency, growing their own food, close to nature. And, partly because we don’t have enough of any of these things, these groups often find much of the fault in our economic systems, and blame capitalism, industrialism, “debt-based money”, fractional-reserve banking, or even money itself for our problems. Related, they also find fault with the super-rich, and their control of the media and politics. But, I’m not so sure about all of that…

And it’s not that I don’t see the problems, I do, and I’ll get to that. But it could be that our real problem is a people problem. But let’s digress just a bit, and let me throw out some thoughts that will likely get me pilloried from both sides of the political spectrum, and accused of a wide range of intellectual and ethical deficits—it’s likely that the market system (invariably labeled “capitalism” or “industrialism”) is not as bad as some fear. For large portions of the world’s people who live in market systems with democratic governments, we’re pretty free. We can buy goods from all over the world with a click of a button, we can use the latest technology in the form of computers or solar panels or electric vehicles. We can work, or not work, as we choose. We can travel or we can stay home. Despite some people’s fear of government control, the government leaves us largely alone. There are rules, of course, we have to pay our taxes, and abide by the law, but these are good things. Governments provide us with roads, and infrastructure, and education systems, and regulations that help protect us or the environment from harm. And, before readers start to freak out—I know it isn’t all perfect. But, for billions, the system delivers goods and services, food and housing and medical care. In economic-speak, it allocates goods, and lowers prices, and promotes efficiency and productivity. We all have, collectively, more stuff than we’ve ever had, and for less work.

Our market system, in miniature.

Voluntary trade benefits both parties. A market in Burma.

I find many of the complaints against the system to be red herrings. All this talk of “debt-based currencies” and the evils of fractional-reserve banking fall into this category. Just to throw out a small example, sure, the banking system can charge us interest on money they create out of thin air. But, it’s just money, and they don’t even get the money, the person they’re loaning it to does, and when that person pays it back all that money that the bank created disappears again (we don’t usually hear this side of the story from those who find fractional reserve banking to be the world’s greatest evil). And, the banks aren’t creating wealth as they create money; each dollar of such credit is offset by a dollar of debt. The net effect of this can be inflation as the money supply goes up, but inflation isn’t quite the bogeyman people fear either; some inflation can actually help people who are in debt by reducing the real costs of the money they pay back. Then, the increased money supply often spurs the economy, creating demand and then more jobs. The banking system does charge for this service of loaning a person money, but they aren’t putting guns to people’s heads, this is a service people want, and go asking for. The interest does provide profits to the “bankers”, but if we want to be a “banker” all we have to do is buy stocks from the banking sector, easy enough to do with a few hundred dollars and access to the web. Etc.

On the other side, the suggestions about alternative economies are themselves nearly always woefully lacking in workable detail. Gift economies won’t get us solar panels made with materials sourced from around the globe. Command economies, regardless of their stripe, will give us more equality only at the cost of freedom. Local currencies won’t finance the type of investment that creates large wind towers, or that brings us plants or seeds from another continent. I won’t belabor it all here, but suffice it to say that many of the people who dream of “a more beautiful world” can sometimes explain how small pieces of the economy can be love and happiness, but fail to envision a complete system. (See my post “Crop Circles and Water Memory” about Charles Eisenstein, one of these thinkers). (In fact, I have written several times about some of these issues, notably “The Amish Question“, and “The Role of Self-Sufficiency“.)

Now, back to the “people problem” part. Our real problem isn’t that market systems don’t work, it’s that they work too well. The drive toward efficiency and productivity work too well; we humans can now leverage energy and mechanization to literally move mountains, or fish every fish from the sea. Then, that power is combined with a flexibility that allows markets to provide us with exactly what we want, in terms of goods and services. (And, through advertising, many things we don’t actually need but are convinced that we want anyway). Part of the problem, ultimately, is us; we have a people problem. There are disconnects between our brains and our actions. We see the mono-cropped corn field, and lament the loss of biodiversity and soil and the rampant pesticide use, but then we go buy food created in this way. We protest the big oil companies, as we drive our fossil-fuel cars around every day (or even to the protests). We lament global warming as we board the jetliner for the tropics. We understand how advertising works but get caught up in materialism anyway.

The mall---where we often go to get what we want but don't actually need.

The mall—where we often go to get what we want but don’t actually need.

What people don’t realize is that the very power and flexibility of the market can be our greatest tool. When we decide to demand food grown in sustainable ways, the markets will deliver it. When we quit buying electricity made from coal, then coal companies will wither like grapes on a severed vine. When we decide that we’ve had enough of economic inequality, and get involved and vote, then policies can be changed. If we can ignore advertising and the power of popular culture, then the markets work for us. They are our tools, and with our dollars we can control them like dogs on a leash. The politicians are ours, too, and will respond to our votes. But we have to get involved, politically, and socially, and economically.

So, just to sum up before I leave half of you wondering and half of you angry—we have some big problems, but they are fixable with people power, even big problems like wealth inequality. It could be that there are indeed better economic systems out there, and it won’t hurt to try and figure them out. But let me suggest that until we do, it would be better to not throw out the baby with the bathwater, and focus as well on making the systems we have better. Because, the bogeyman does not lie quite where some people think it does.


 Top image credit: Trey Ratcliff, “Business in London”, Flickr Creative Commons. Image has been cropped.
Market image: Eustequio Santimano, “Myanmar/Burma Market”, Flickr Creative Commons. Image has been cropped.
Shopping mall: Agustin Rafael Reyes, “Winter Shopping”, Flickr Creative Commons. Image has been cropped.

Making a Permaculture Plan

Chanterelles, blueberries and lingon berries

Permaculture: nutrition and abundance and soil creation, all at once… Picture of chanterelles, blueberries, and lingonberries.

Because I don’t have enough to do (kidding!), I’ve started taking an online permaculture course taught by Geoff Lawton in Australia. It’s a 12-week course consisting of hundreds of videos and quite a bit of reference material, combined with a Facebook-like interface for discussion. The students are from all over the world, literally— Malta, Laos, Kenya, Australia, the US, Canada, Britain, and China, just to name a few. The comments and questions from these students (and their enthusiasm), combined with the answers from Geoff and his staff, add a tremendous amount of depth to the course. But, perhaps what has surprised me the most is how the combination of the two has been causing a constant streams of questions to coalesce in my brain. I had to get up at 2 a.m. this morning and jot some of them down, just to keep them from running through my head. Last night’s scribblings went something like this–

“Where exactly does soil fertility COME FROM? And why do we need swales, if your land is already reasonable not-arid (Vermont). OR, does water wash off fertility? And what would the mechanism for that be? And is fertility synonymous with carbon content, or a close equivalent? And if very small farms make the most food per unit of area, then they can only do this with inputs of compost or fertilizer of some sort, because the nutrients in the food are being removed from the system. Which takes me back to that first question, where does the fertility come from in a closed system? And why do some soil gurus swear by subsoil plowing, and others seems to hold that any introduction of oxygen into soils causes carbon to burn up?”

I’m sure I’ll be able to wrap my head around all of these, and their answers, as we all proceed. And, I’m sure these questions are only the tip of the iceberg; I might be in for a mentally-busy few months.

Now, to back up a bit, if you aren’t familiar with “permaculture”, I saw a good definition the other day in a news article, which described it as “…agricultural methods that maximize land production by emulating natural systems”. In short, growing a huge variety of mostly perennial plants in ways that enhance soil fertility, and managing water on a property in ways that keep that fertility from washing away. It is often described as a “food forest”, with many layers of plants, from tall trees right down to vines and shrubs and even mushrooms. Though, that being said, there isn’t really just one “permaculture”, because the basic systems can be adapted to tiny urban settings as well as huge rural ones, and in nearly all climates. In fact, permaculture seems to be as much about attitudes and ethics as it is about actual methods, as the actual methods can vary widely depending on where they are being applied. And, speaking of large areas, one of the reference links in the course was to this video about a restoration project on the Loess Plateau in China, in which 35,000 sq. kilometers were taken from near-desert conditions to almost completely vegetated. It is nearly unbelievable.

For my own property, I did make a list of goals, though some of them might end up being mutually exclusive. But as a starting point, I’d like to end up with conditions that increase soil fertility, increase biodiversity, provide wildlife habitat, produce food, have low maintenance requirements once established, provide forage for bees and other pollinators, and not cost too much. And, if possible, I’d like to rework the hydrology of the property in ways that would provide running water (it currently runs off in one fell swoop…).

As for the labor for some of this, my other crazy idea is to start a hippie commune. But, on a slightly more serious note, I have felt for a long time that one of our great hopes lies in permaculture (see my post, “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“). And, if the enthusiasm and optimism in this worldwide cadre of students is any indication, it is hope indeed.


Top image credit: Kim Ahlstrom, “Chanterelles, Blueberries, and Lingon Berries”, Flickr Creative Commons.