12 09 2010

I recently read the “Sustainable Tennessee Agenda,” issued by the Tennessee Environmental Council and Tennessee Conservation Voters.  You can find it online yourself at  I had to double-check the date to make sure it wasn’t really written in 1980, at the close of the Carter administration, when the steps recommended in this report would have had a better chance of succeeding.

I know people who are involved with these groups, and I know their hearts are in the right place, but I would like to ask them a few questions, like:

“Are you candy coating the depth of what we face for mass consumption?”

“Are you soft pedaling what we need to do about it because you’re aware of how little political traction this will get in a legislature that’s barely willing to grudgingly admit that the world is not flat and wasn’t created in 4004 BC?”

“Do you really think our knuckle-dragging legislature would go for even these half-, or more realistically, quarter- and eighth measures, anyway?”

Sorry if I seem kinda unfriendly, guys.  It’s just that it’s time to stop fretting about replacing the Titanic’s incandescent bulbs with compact florescents and get our butts into some lifeboats.  Let me count the ways:

They start out on the right foot, giving us a good definition of “sustainability”:

The concept of sustainability can be defined simply as, “no waste”. Waste is a measure of economic efficiency, and a simple metric Tennesseans can utilize to measure how sustainable our lifestyles and communities have become. We can monitor waste generated, or lack
thereof, to track our progress toward sustainability as individuals, organizations and societies.  Sustainability can also be defined in more complex terms that include economic criteria, natural resources and equity of access.

Unfortunately, the very next paragraph steps off into liberal la-la land, with its invocation of the magic g-word:  “growth.”

A sustainable strategy for Tennessee will position our state to stimulate a growing Green Economy and Green Jobs sector. The Green Economy potentially represents an economic future like Tennessee has never seen before. It is a retooling of our failing infrastructure in a manner that promotes Tennessee heritage, our communities and our quality of Life. This strategy insures that labor-intensive Green Collar Jobs are created locally and training programs are initiated so segments of the population currently unemployed or underemployed can benefit from stable well-paying opportunities.

Initially, you might think a lot depends on interpretation: are they daydreaming about the never-never land of a “growing,” but somehow “sustainable” economy?  Or are they simply recognizing that our “green economy” is currently miniscule, and will need to grow to replace the functions of the “growth economy” as it rots like a dead cow in a hot field?  The report’s repeated invocation of “growth” gives me the distinct and disappointed impression that the writers of this report are clinging to the idea that “growth,” the cancerous destruction of the natural world, will still be happening in our future, somehow made “smart” and “green” by higher standards and new laws.

I doubt it.  The report talks of training “at-risk youth and young adults” to do energy conserving retrofits on existing buildings.  I got news, folks–there’s already plenty of well-trained construction workers with families and mortgages (or just the rented roof over their heads) who are “at risk” of becoming homeless if they don’t find work soon.  And the money for this project is coming from…..?  Sorry, we’ve got a war to fight, no money for domestic make-work programs.

But, if the housing and commercial real-estate boom, which has been the main driver of our economy ever since manufacturing jobs started going overseas, if that boom has busted, the only boom left is the coal and natural gas extraction industry, which aims to pulverize Tennessee’s countryside so we can keep the lights on in the cities.  Hey, nobody can afford to live in the middle of nowhere anymore, who cares what it looks like or if you can drink the water?  The report takes a strong stand against mountaintop removal and gas fracting–the idea of injecting fracting chemicals into Tennessee’s cave-riddled topography sounds like a recipe for nightmare to me, but since we’ve got a nightmare legislature (that’s probably only gong to get scarier), there’s no telling what they will approve for the sake of those generous campaign contributions.  I will stand with you on this issue, folks, even if I think you’re more than a little out of touch when you talk about “growth.”

Likewise, the section on solid waste recycling is…solid, calling for increased recycling and composting and an end to Tennessee’s bizarre practice of labeling landfilled construction materials as “recycled.”  Talk of composting leads to the subject of local agriculture, which the Sustainable Agenda, of course, strongly supports.

Calling for better public transportation, on the other hand, is one of those too-little-too-late platform planks.  Our entire infrastructure is built around the private automobile, and the result is that there are not a lot of “masses” needing transportation–points of origin, destinations, and times of travel are so fractured that it would be difficult to locate a mass-transit system that would actually be serviceable for most people.  And then there’s two other factors:  construction money, and the continued existence of jobs to which people need to commute.

The “education” section talks about the importance of creating a “no child left inside” program, and generally instituting conservation/pollution awareness/environmental programs in our schools.  They don’t mention the movement towards hands-on gardening as a school project, but I’m sure they would approve of it being in the mix.  Maybe they thought it was a little too radical to mention out front.  I don’t know.

So, I’ve been a real Mr. Smarty Pants about this report–what would I do different?

Let’s start with education and “green jobs.”  Through most of history, most people have spent most of their time producing food, or providing the technology needed to produce it.  We’ve had a couple of hundred year break from that, but the break is drawing to a close.  Farmers, herders, hunters, gatherers, blacksmiths, basket weavers, barn and granary builders, harness and buggy makers are the wave of the future…oops, no jet backpacks….sorry ’bout that!  We also need clothes, at least part of the year, and shoes come in handy.  Weavers and spinners and tailors and seamstresses and shoe makers will once again be important as well.  It won’t all be a throwback to the past.  There will be plenty of work recycling and repurposing the detritus of our current consumer culture.   And, let’s not forget millers and bakers, and the facilities they need to ply their trades.

But we do not live by bread alone.  We need to educate people not only in these practical skills, but in the expressive arts as well.  We are not “going back” to lives that are “brutish, nasty, and short.”  We are going forward with the cultural heritage of the entire history of the planet.  Gilgamesh and James Joyce, Beowulf and the Beatles.  Local manufacture of paper and ink, and local printers, will be important.  The internet will not be with us forever, I suspect.

I  believe it is not too late to create a future in which nobody needs to, as Thoreau said, “lead a life of quiet desperation, and go to their grave with the song still in them.”  We need musical instrument makers, and millions of people to play, really play, those instruments, millions of people who are not afraid to sing while they work and when their workday is done, in millions of neighborhoods, not for fame and profit, but just for fun.

We also need to educate people to celebrate our heritage and history, to understand our triumphs and mistakes and our place in the cosmos, not to mention fostering an understanding of how our own minds work, and we will need truly creative teachers to foster this kind of education.

I haven’t even mentioned “the healing arts”…but I’m running out of time.

The “green jobs” future I foresee may not be “well-paying opportunities” as we think of them today, for the simple reason that there will not be that much “money” around in the future, but it will, in the report’s words, be  “an economic future like Tennessee has never seen before….a retooling of our failing infrastructure in a manner that promotes Tennessee heritage, our communities and our quality of Life.”

We won’t be rich, but we might just be a whole lot happier than we are on the current treadmill.  Whatever it turns out to be, I’ll see you there!

Burning Times, “The Only Green World”


10 05 2009

A number of bits of local news and commentary have come to my attention lately:  Mayor Dean’s “State of the City” address, the report of the Green Ribbon Committee for a Sustainable Nashville, news that the “reform” of Tennessee’s waste management policies is not only a shambles but a sham, and the renewed push for construction of Maytown Center, along with the howls of misguided (or intentionally misleading) protest that accompanied my characterization of its neo-feudal potential last month.

Hizzoner the Mayor used his moment in the spotlight to push for a new Nashville Convention Center, a sort of “build it and they will come,” Hail Mary pass proposal that has been so thoroughly excoriated by the Nashville Scene that I hardly need to go into detail here, except to answer their “what are they smoking?” question with, “must be crack, ’cause any self-respecting pot smoker would see through this welfare-for-developers proposal in a minute.”  I would also add that anybody who thinks any kind of tourism is going to make a comeback is inhaling the wrong kind of smoke.  The only big influx that I see in Nashville’s, or America’s, future, is Chinese and various Middle Easterners coming to repossess whatever they can in consideration of America’s unrepayable debt to them.  The “T” in “T-bills” is gonna stand for “toilet paper,” boys and girls.  Can you say “Confederate money”?

And, speaking of smoking crack, I have to repeat and re-emphasize that anyone who thinks Maytown Center is going to be good for Nashville is still living in the delusionary world of the Bush era.  Growth is over.  If it is built, Maytown will either rapidly turn into a ghost town or suck the air out of the rest of the city and become a gated version of downtown, so the upper crust doesn’t have to cross paths with the homeless.

We would be much better off using the energy that the city’s movers and shakers are putting into these mirages to fast-track and expand some of the proposals in the Green Ribbon Committee’s report, which is at least well-intentioned, if woefully under-ambitious.  I feel bad about having to say that.  I know some of the people on the Committee, and I trust their good will. I went to one of their public meetings, and I think the document they have produced is radical and edgy–for 1975.  At this point, it is too little, too late.    Can we create a sustainable local economy that will support our current population?  Can we produce enough hoes and digging forks for everybody to turn up the ground it will take to keep ourselves in potatoes, let alone manufacture  our own shoes and clothing? Ain’t none of that happening here in Nashvegas any more, — how many weavers and cobblers are there in this town?  We sold our industrial capacity to the Chinese for a mess of profit, and we are about to find out that money is nothing but funny-looking paper once everybody agrees it’s worthless.

The landfill proposals that so outrage my friends at BURNT (Bring Urban Recycling to Nashville Today) are another head-shaker, another high-stakes poker game, played with a marked deck, in the tilting first-class lounge of the Titanic.  Of course, as James Howard Kunstler points out in World Made By Hand, all the recyclables we stick in landfills now are a kind of savings account that we will be able to mine in coming decades, when we will be out of natural resources and the ability to acquire them through commerce, and will have nothing better to do than dig up old city dumps, straighten bent nails, melt down and recast plastic and metal, and treasure the one or two chemists in our city who figure out how to make matches from local materials–because all those disposable lighters we take for granted are gonna be a thing of the past in the future, folks.  Do I have to remind you that you are going to have to cook with a wood fire, unless you’re lucky enough to have a solar cooker and a sunny day? And where will you be gathering your firewood?

Oh, and speaking of rigged poker games on the Titanic, our newly-Republican legislature is attempting to make sure that we don’t switch to optical-scan voting machines in time for the next election, presumably so they can rig it more easily, since they are doing such a patently bad job of running the state that they know they won’t be able to win an honest election…not that the Dims would be much better, it’s just a question of who controls what’s left of the state’s treasury.   Well, OK…the Dims would be doing nothing instead of forbidding local living wage laws, allowing people to carry guns everywhere and restricting abortion rights. “Respect for human life”? HELLO?

As all the various antics listed above indicate, either both parties are clueless about the scope of what we’re in for in this country, or they are figuring the best way to survive is to cut as many people out of the loop as possible.  If national politics are any guide, I would say the Repuglyicans are trying to cut as many of us out of the loop as they can (leaving more goodies for themselves), and the Dim-ocrats are simply clueless.  In this state, most seem to think the best strategy is to try and be as conservative as the Repugs, but since they lack the intense commitment to self-aggrandizement that characterizes so many Repugs, they end up coming across as clueless namby-pambys, which is one reason (besides ignorance and its bastard child, racism) they have been fluffing so many elections lately–like, it wasn’t just that Harold Ford is black, it’s that he’s barely to the left of Bob Corker. Not only is Harold no Jesse Jackson, he’s not even a Barack Obama.

Let me make something clear here–I  am as threatened as anyone by the future I foresee.  Western civilization as we know it needs to end for the planetary ecosystem (including humans) to continue, and I, an aging man with health problems, may not survive the change.  With that in mind, I want to make that transition as smooth as I can, so I am living as simply as I can, and supporting organizations that I believe will help cushion our descent, like our local bioregional council and the Tennessee Green Party.  As long as we have a functioning statewide political system (and I am not going to hazard a guess on how long that may be), we need to take advantage of it and use the framework of the Green Party to raise real issues:  local sustainability, resource conservation, universal access to health care, economic justice, and grass-roots democracy, to name the first few broad headings that come to mind.  There is SO much to do, and we’re  running the Green Party of Tennessee with a skeleton crew–so come on aboard, there’s plenty of room.

music:  Eliza Gilkyson, “Unsustainable


11 03 2007

A few months back, I promised you that I would be investigating the green aspects of Nashville’s various mayoral candidates. The election’s not ’till August, so I figured I had plenty of time—but then one of the candidates forced my hand. David Briley made the following proposals:

• Create a Mayor’s Office of Sustainability to coordinate public-private environmental cooperation, to study methods of lowering carbon emissions in Nashville, to create an environmental standards report, to “address environmental racism and injustice” and to develop environmental education programs for school children;

• Establish “green building standards” for public and private construction, requiring new Metro construction to meet environmental standards and incentivizing private developers so they would build environmentally-friendly projects “through density bonuses, through fast-track approval of green projects in our community – we can do that and save the taxpayers money,” Briley said;

• Dedicate one cent from the existing property tax levy for Metro to buy private open space.

• Expand curbside recycling throughout the entire county — from the Urban Services District into the General Services District — on a voluntary, subscription basis;

• Encourage the use of “hybrid, low-emission, and alternative fuel vehicles” by creating “a Metro fleet of hybrid vehicles” and encouraging public use of green vehicles through incentives such as cheaper and priority parking; Briley would lobby the Tennessee General Assembly so that it would let such vehicle owners use HOV lanes;

• Have Metro plant trees or other greenery in the city’s rights-of-way and public property — such as in medians and intersection islands — and have Metro plant at least 1,000 trees annually;

• Establish a target for Davidson County to reduce emissions levels 10 percent below 2000 levels by 2014.
Very good beginning, Mr. Briley! So I got on the stick and mailed a fairly lengthy and detailed list of questions to the other candidates. Karl Dean’s campaign and Bob Clement’s campaign both responded, but Howard Gentry and Buck Dozier have ignored me, so far. I’m not surprised to be ignored by Mr. Dozier, who after all is the godfather of those obnoxious new animated billboards we are now plagued with, but I’m a little disappointed not to have heard from Howard Gentry. The Clement campaign requested my question list and promised a reply, but hasn’t actually done so yet. Karl Dean had this to say to me on the subject of creating a sustainable Nashville:

“I am dedicated to making Nashville an even more environmentally-friendly city. One of the biggest contributors to global warming is vehicle emissions, especially those produced in the inner city by diesel vehicles. Metro government can make an impact by using alternative fuels like biodiesel in mass transit buses, garbage collection trucks, and school buses. It can be used without engine modifications in any diesel vehicle including cars, buses, trucks, and off-road equipment. I would pursue the use of federal and state grants to pay for infrastructure changes for refueling stations and encourage Metro School and MTA to do the same.

“Increased use of mass transit will also greatly cut greenhouse gases. Nashville should begin to plan now for its future use of mass transit. But before additional transit options are funded, we need to make the most efficient use of what we already have. Mass transit will only work if we have enough flexible routes. We need to study the current routing plans, get customer feedback and look to other cities that have successful plans.

“Education programs aimed at better public awareness of the causes and solutions for green house gases can make a major impact.  The public is open to hear about this issue and seems eager to be a part of the solution. We need to lead this wave and make the most of it.

“Lowering electricity usage is important for reducing overall greenhouse gases. Again, public awareness goes a long way. Grants, incentives, recognition programs, getting schools involved with the education and publicity, are all inexpensive ways to “get started.” Partnering with NES, Nashville Gas, the Home Builders Association, and engineering and the architectural associations for outreach programs is the best way to get some expertise and free assistance for the city.

“I am also a huge supporter of our Greenways and our Park System. I’ve sat on the Greenways for Nashville Board. And I am committed to the implementation of the entire 10-year masterplan for Parks and Greenways.

All the best,

Karl Dean”

I appreciate Mr. Dean’s views, but I would have to give David Briley points for being “fustest with the mostest,” as the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, whose statue adorns the southern approach to our city, used to say. I would also give David Briley lifestyle points for having spent time teaching in Ecuador and getting to know the third world first hand, and a different kind of lifestyle points for using Jack Johnson’s “Let it Be Sung” as the song on his Myspace site. Dean’s Myspace site is run by his 19-year old son. He doesn’t feature any music.

On a perhaps more important note, dealing with crime in Nashville, Dean proposes to “Create a Plain-Clothes Neighborhood Intervention Unit. Citizens are on their best behavior when they know they are being watched. The Neighborhood Intervention Unit will reinstate the use of plain-clothes officers in unmarked police cars for daily patrol.”

This caused me to wonder if surveillance cameras would be the next step, and left me feeling slightly creepy.

Briley, on the other hand, notes that “10,000 young adults ages 16 to 24 in Nashville are responsible for 80 percent of our crimes, and that taking measures now to reach out to struggling students may help change this.” This seems like a much less scattershot approach to me, and one that I would feel more comfortable supporting—plus which, it would probably be cheaper than hiring plainclothes cops. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and all that.

So, at this point in the marathon, David Briley is far and away the “greenest” candidate running, with Karl Dean a healthy second, Bob Clement saying he’s gonna get with the program, and no word from Howard Gentry or Buck Dozier. Stay tuned.

music: Greg Brown, “One Big Town”


12 12 2005

About 35 years ago, my friends and I came to Tennessee from all around America. We landed in a little place called Lewis County, where nothing much had ever happened—Hohenwald, the county seat, hadn’t even been founded ’till after the Civil War. The lay of the land was steep, narrow ridges and steep, narrow hollows with clear running creeks in them, and oak trees covered everything.

We felt as if we had done the next best thing to leaving the country—we were isolated enough, physically and politically, to be left alone to work out our lives as we saw fit. We delivered, raised, and educated our own children, grew most of our own food (and sometimes didn’t eat all that well). Hohenwald was happy to leave us alone—they didn’t want the burden of extra children in school and an extra culture to deal with. No social workers came knocking on our doors, concerned about what we were doing, and for the most part no law enforcement officers came to investigate the funny smelling smoke that sometimes hung around us and brought a twinkle to our reddened eyes. We were as far back in the woods as a person could get in Tennessee, and we felt mighty, mighty happy about it. Over in Hohenwald, life went on as it always had. Small town merchants, small town banks, a community of people who knew each other and knew each others’ daddies and mommas and children.

Much of the land in Lewis County was owned by these old-time, long-time families. Old people lived on the land and with the land and had the skills they needed to live in a world where you couldn’t just run to the store for everything. We learned a lot from them.

All this started to change in the 1980’s. The old folks died off and their children sold their land to timber companies, who started in clearcutting. The big farmers in the county went under, and their flat, open land was sold for subdivisions and industrial parks. Our 1700 acres was no longer a drop in a sea of green. It became an island in a sea of stumps. Walmart moved into Hohenwald, and sucked the downtown dry. Our friendly banker, who had always been so relaxed about whether we made our monthly payments, was arrested just before boarding a flight to Brazil, and I believe he is in prison still. The bank was taken over by the FDIC, and suddenly our relaxed way of life evaporated and we had to hustle to make payments to keep our land, had to find ways to work with the system we had once aspired to replace.

Now Hohenwald is an outlying suburb of Nashville. There is no food to speak of grown in Lewis County anymore, no local sawmills cutting local trees for local housing. Since NAFTA, the industrial park has emptied out, and there are no jobs outside of the deadend Walmart type. It could be argued that there never were that many jobs to begin with, but there was a community and a culture and a way of life, and all that has been swept aside by pursuit of the almighty dollar. And they call this progress.

If we ever get serious about corporate crime, some corporate persons are going to be put away for the murder of rural America. Lewis County is only one example of a string of serial killings. I would like to break through people’s established patterns of thinking, that cause them to persist in this downward corporate spiral, and give them the Green tools they need to create a truly better future for everyone on this small and limited planet. Sustainability, responsibility, and community can only be created one relationship, one day, at a time. Compared to the rate at which the world is degenerating, it can seem like an agonizingly slow process. But it’s the only thing that will work.

music: Joan Baez, “Children of Darkness”


Hey sweetie, net time is really expensive here in McLeod Ganj so I haven’t read your entry properly. But India is hell bent on going the same way as the US, in half the time, with about 100 times the population. They are embracing slash and burn consumerism so fast, and complain that we’re hypocrites for criticizing them. However, there’s 1 BILLION of them so even half that many people consuming on a US level will be devastating. Already the # of individually owned vehicles is skyrocketing thanks to the new prosperity, with very few emissions laws to protect the lungs of ordinary people riding bicycles through the smoggy streets. Just went to Delhi and the smog was unbearable. Thirty years ago a lot of these folks didn’t know what money was. I guess I am a condescending neocolonial for thinking that in some ways they were better off. love, CM
Posted by sirensongs on 12/24/2005 08:10:59 AM

one way or another, the human population of the planet WILL decline….
Posted by brothermartin on 12/24/2005 10:24:38 PM


9 12 2005

Last month I talked to you about China’s impossible dream—to have a living standard on a par with the U.S. There just ain’t enough oil , wood or grain in the world for it to happen, in a nutshell. Since then, an accident at an oil refinery has sent a hundred tons of benzene into the main water supply for Harbin, one of China’s largest cities. All that benzene has passed through Harbin; by now it has crossed the border into Russia, and eventually it will reach the Pacific Ocean, where it will enter a food chain that may end up on the plates of fish eaters here in America. Oh, joy.

You know, in a way we’re lucky it was benzene. Sure, benzene is a carcinogenic neurotoxin, but it’s not, y’know, acutely poisonous—it’s not like it was arsenic or cyanide or chlordane, not a Bhopal-type incident that’s going to kill thousands of people outright. It’s just going to create a leukemia spike, which, when you consider all the other toxins that are getting turned loose in China, will hardly be noticed. Really.

If the Chinese government has its way, that leukemia spike won’t be noticed at all, because they’ll hide or manipulate the statistics to keep it from showing up. The latest news reports from China indicate that the officials responsible for the spill are paying for it with their jobs, but the ones responsible for hiding it from the public are not.

This spill is just the most noticeable event of its kind, so far. A recent visitor to rural China wrote of villages where the only available household water was purple from industrial pollution, and noted how widespread industrial pollution is throughout the countryside. I suppose this is one way to deal with the problem of overpopulation.

Sometimes it seems to me the Chinese just don’t get it, even when they try to be ecological. A story recently came out of China, via the Associated Press, about the largest government slaughter of Chinese civilians since Tienamen Square. Troops shot ten people dead out of a demonstration of thousands who were protesting that they were being insufficiently compensated for seizure of their land. Why was the government confiscating their land? Why, to build a wind farm, a tidal generating plant—and a coal-fired power plant. For this they were displacing thousands of relatively self-sufficient, if financially impoverished, peasants. How ecological! Then I read something that really made my jaw drop—the government of China admits that 70,000 similar protests occurred just last year. Seventy thousand protests in ONE YEAR.

The thing is, the Chinese are not doing this for themselves or by themselves. They are doing it for us, with our money. The widespread pollution of China is a direct effect of a massive transfer of wealth from the United States and Western Europe to China. We, with our royal lifestyles, are responsible for those 100 tons of benzene washing down the Amur River, for the fact that five of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in China. They are dying for our sins of gluttony and overconsumption.

When the first Westerners approached China about commercial trade, they were rebuffed, because the Chinese felt they had everything they needed already, and it was true. There is a remarkable book, “Farmers of Forty Centuries,“written nearly a hundred years ago, that details how the Chinese farmed the same land for four thousand years–sustainably, intensively, and organically feeding the longest-lasting, most sophisticated urban civilization that has ever existed on this planet. Sure, our civilization is a lot more sophisticated, but we have a few thousand years to go to match the Chinese record for sustainability. What they did was not easy, and for most of the people on the bottom it was not terribly gracious, but it by God worked for four thousand years.

But all that is being swept away. The Chinese have sold their inheritance for a pot of Walmart contracts and a dream of upward mobility for everyone. When I was a kid I read in Ripley’s Believe it or Not that if everyone in China stood on a chair and they all jumped off their chairs at the same time (a feat of synchronization that might not be past them), they would change the orbit and rotation of the earth, and that was several hundred million Chinese ago. What the Chinese are doing now is every bit as upsetting to global stability as jumping off of chairs en masse. and it really is happening.

As a “developing nation,” China is not bound by the Kyoto Agreement, although they have agreed to work on cutting their greenhouse gas emissions—if the European nations will subsidize that process. That’s not fair to the Europeans—China’s pollution problems have mushroomed much more at the behest of American demand than demand from Europe. And most climate scientists agree that the Kyoto Protocols are a drop in the bucket compared to what really needs to happen to keep from going into out-of control global warming—if we can still stop it at all. What profit is it to gain a world of money and lose the soul of soil and air?

musical segue: “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” as played by Richard Thompson from the live 1988 album, “More Guitar”


10 11 2005

Type into your web browser, and you get a luminously green page that advertises, “Sustainable Solar-Dynamic Bio-Benign Design: /Offering Better Ways to Live, at Less Cost /Today and Tomorrow, Anywhere on Earth.” When you read through the web site, you find a wealth of practical, down-to-earth, thoroughly doable advice on small-scale agriculture, wastewater treatment, and energy-conservative design that does not sacrifice comfort and grace.

If America had really made energy conservation “the moral equivalent of war,” as Jimmy Carter counseled us, the government would have been doing everything it could to foster places like Solviva not just all over America, but all over the world. Instead, government after government in this country, at both national and local levels, has opted for more of the same old dysfunctional same old: long supply lines, the squandering of local agricultural resources, and continued dependence on the availability of affordable oil.

Still, there are bright lights in the world like Solviva, I thought, and so I arranged to interview Solviva’s founder, Anna Edey, for what I expected would be an upbeat story about one of the successes of the environmental movement. Instead, I found myself talking with a profoundly discouraged woman. “Everybody says what I”m doing is wonderful and they really admire me,” she told me, “but nobody is willing to step up and do what I’m doing.” She was unable to find a competent manager for her commercial greenhouse, and it when it deteriorated to the point that it no longer worked as a food production facility, she put it on the market; but the only buyer she could find was someone who just wanted the site—who tore down the greenhouse and put up a profoundly energy-hungry home instead–”big windows facing north,” Anna said.

The island of Martha’s Vineyard, where Solviva is located, had not taken Anna’s advice about ecological design and had embarked on many costly “improvements” that were polluting the island’s limited fresh water supply and driving up the need for heating oil on the island—and, of course, driving up the taxes of the limited number of residents, making it less and less possible for someone who is not an active and successful player of the money game to live there—and, while Anna demonstrated with her greenhouse that it is possible to earn big money with her ideas, they are not fundamentally about making money, but about getting outside the money system.

Her book, in spite of nationwide publicity and rave reviews from Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News, has sold less than ten thousand copies. You can order it online at her website,

Anna expressed her concern to me about the inertia she had witnessed: “People know what we need to do in order to make the change, but it seems like they just won’t do it.. I find myself wondering if, as a species, we’ve lost our will to survive and will be going extinct. Will our children’s children be able to have and raise children?”

I wish I had some overwhelming proof I could present her that would give her hope in this weary world, but I confess I share the same forebodings. No one can tell the future. All I know is, I want to work as hard as I can to create a world in which my worst nightmares are only dimly remembered dreams, a world of sufficiency and sustainability and justice and love and respect. Isn’t that what you want, too? Is that too much to ask for?


14 08 2005

Renowned biologist Edmund O. Wilson estimates that the “combined biomass” (that means weight of the human population of the earth) is one hundred times greater than that of any other large species that has ever lived on Earth, though it’s possible that we are outweighed by the dung beetles. But, I digress…In order to sustain ourselves, Wilson says, we are sucking up about 40% of the planet’s production of biomass, outcompeting other species to the extent that one fifth of all bird species, a third to two fifths of all mammals, fish, and amphibians, and fully HALF of all plant species are threatened with extinction—crowded out by US—human beings. I just read that a record one third of the planet’s land surface is now under cultivation of some kind. Where can the wild things go?

I hope I don’t have to tell you that this is not a healthy situation. Species are already disappearing at a rate at least a thousand times more frequent than what seems to be normal background extinction. We seem to be in the early-midstages of a mass extinction, the kind of event that has only occurred perhaps five other times in the entire 2.1 billion year history of life on the planet.

The last great extinction, in the late Cretaceous period, which cleared out the dinosaurs and made way for the likes of us, or at least our monkey-faced ancestors, took place 65 million years ago. eliminated 85% of all species on the planet, and was evidently caused by a relatively small asteroid–only about six miles across.. there are a lot of those still out there, folks. But, I digress…The Permian extinction, which eliminated 95% of all species on the planet (amazing luck for our ancestors to get through that!) about 250 million years ago, is linked with widespread vulcanism, and the previous three extinctions all seem connected with glaciation. But this current mass extinction is being propelled by humanity’s success in appropriating the world’s resources for our own use. This extinction is being created by an animal that think of itself as intelligent, compassionate, and possessed of free will. It’s enough to make you wonder.

The question that remains to be answered is, “are we fraying the web of life to such an extent that it will no longer support us? Will this mass extinction culminate in our extinction?”

For some of us, most notably those living in sub-Saharan Africa, the answer already appears to be “yes.” For those of us who live in the comfort of North America or Europe, we can at best say, “not so far.”

Think about it for a minute, though. Those who seem to be the most indifferent to this almost inconceivable crisis are the ones who don’t think twice about their Mexican lettuce, Argentine beef, Chinese clothing, Canadian building materials, Japanese cars, and Saudi Arabian energy sources. They seem to think that America’s overwhelming military and technological superiority will always be there to help them live in the style to which they have become accustomed. They have no problem with fighting a pre-emptive war for oil, because deep in their hearts they know that might makes right, and since they have the might, they must be right. In any case, they have the most to lose, so they are committed to winning at any cost. Why not pre-emptive strikes on China and India, to cut their population down so they won’t use so much of that oil we want so badly?

But nobody wins if the Natural World loses. The natural world is not just a passive repository of great scenery and resources for us to exploit. The natural world is what creates the air we breathe, the soil that feeds us, and the temperature conditions in which we can survive. The natural world purifies our wastes and provides the water we drink and use for agriculture. The natural world “just grows” the grasses and trees that provide fodder for our animals, food, fuel, lumber and paper for us, and –yes, I’m repeating myself–the air we breathe. Sure, we plant crops, but “we” don’t grow them—nature does. And we don’t know what threshold will have to be crossed before these basic natural systems will fail. We may not know until we’ve crossed them. And by then it may be too late.

This is why we, as Greens, are not exactly “leftwingers.” We are actually rock-ribbed conservatives. We would like to conserve water, soil, and air, conserve petroleum, because we recognize that the human race is currently using these things up faster—in the case of oil, far, far faster—than they can be replenished. Everybody acts like petroleum is as common and replenishable as water, but it’s not. For all practical purposes, there is only so much of it, and when it’s gone there won’t be any more, and the end of petroleum in our economy isn’t just about a looming scarcity of vehicle fuel and heating oil, it’s about all the millions of things we make out of plastic not being cheap any more, it’s about fertilizers and pesticides that mass agriculture depends on being prohibitively expensive, it really is about the end of the American lifestyle we have all come to be so dependent on—or is it addicted to?

Surely we all know by now what needs to be done to prevent the coming crash—or at least mollify its impact. There are things we can do personally: We in the developed world need to back off the path of conspicuous consumption, eat food that is in season and grown close to home, learn to share with each other and appreciate each other’s company and talents. There are things we need to do institutionally: find ways to transfer appropriate technology and wealth to those who are severely impoverished, so that they can enjoy a graceful and sustainable standard of living. A little electricity, pure water, and access to health care and family planning would go a long way to ease the lives of billions. There are things we need to do politically: end the paradigm that favors the continued accumulation of wealth by the already wealthy and that favors violence as a solution to disputes. Suppose we said that corporations should no longer have standing as persons, that nobody needs to earn more than, say, a hundred thousand dollars a year, and that the best way to get rid of the threat of weapons of mass destruction would be for America and China—followed by the rest of the world’s governments– to quit manufacturing them and decomission their armed forces?

If we can just take a few steps towards sanity, the rewards will be great enough to keep our feet on that path. One step at a time…..

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