Friday, November 14, 2014

Nascent Neofeudalism?

It was during a winter in about 1991, I believe, and I awoke after midnight to an astonishing spectacle: “thundersnow.” Lightning flashed against the windows of my rented second-floor flat as the wind drove falling snow with an intensity I hadn’t seen since childhood. By the end of the storm, drifts had shut much of the city in. Main roads had been cleared, but driving to them from where I lived on a side street was nearly impossible.

As the storm abated, the digout began. Neighbors piled snow high beside their driveways and sidewalks, but the road was still nearly impassible as the traffic that had somehow made it through had only compressed the snow and made it heavier. Nonetheless, resident after resident attempted to navigate it and get to work. Whenever somebody tried and got stuck, five or six people who were shoveling nearby driveways would walk over and push and shovel as needed to free the motorist. This happened maybe ten times that I saw, and I helped push four or five cars at my end of the street.

It’s kind of cliché to observe that neighbors often get together to overcome weather-related challenges, but in the years since then what stuck with me was the economic value that this neighborhood cooperation yielded. Local towing services were overwhelmed with disabled vehicles. Because of this, the “normal,” get-out-your-credit-card-and-bite-the-bullet, middle class response to a disabled vehicle was simply not available. There would be no savior in the form of a professional tow-truck driver showing up with a huge piece of machinery to help get cars out of the snow in exchange for “money.”

But it was amazing how, with five or six people pushing for a few minutes per vehicle, we managed to get car after car out of that neighborhood, quickly and efficiently. And here’s the thing: while we were certainly generating value, we did so by bypassing the traditional economy, which mandates that we earn money, have our income taxed, put it into a bank, then swipe a credit card to pay for the driver, tow truck and associated maintenance, fuel, insurance, advertising and other miscellaneous business overhead, and of course the credit card issuer’s transaction fees. None of that happened. People just moved. When the money economy failed, a different, more primitive, and more efficient one prevailed.

Ironically, our efficiency came at the cost of our normal productivity. The people pushing were in effect temporarily unemployed, and could not get to their fossil-fuel-enhanced, highly productive jobs.  The distinction between efficiency and productivity is probably worth a quick mention here.  Let’s use the example of a bicycle as a piece of technology.  A bicycle is highly efficient in terms of energy required to move a person and a small load in many kinds of common conditions. If a person is using the bicycle to make deliveries, putting a gasoline powered engine on it does not add efficiency – in terms of energy use per unit of work, the engine reduces efficiency, in fact – although it will very likely add to the user’s productivity. In confusing efficiency with productivity, people may consider cars to be an efficient way to get around. Automobile transportation may or may not be an efficient use of the driver’s time, but in terms of energy used per passenger mile, cars are grossly inefficient: most of the energy in the fuel is wasted. And the important thing is, while our culture can discount such inefficiencies for a time, nature doesn’t lose track of what’s going on. Do you desire timely delivery of hot pizza to outlying rural areas by motorcar?  It’s technically feasible, requires highly productive machinery, and in some areas it has even become a cultural norm. But on a basic level of physics and biology, does it make any kind of real sense as a way of feeding ourselves? 

I don’t think so. Beginning with the assumption the rural hot pizza deliveries and a great many other such highly productive but inefficient kinds of economic activity will prove unsustainable, the Green Hand Reskilling concept embraces a more primitive and more durable idea, preferring efficiency over energy-intensive productivity. The fact that efficiency is currently coming out the loser in its competition, given all the glittery prizes that energy-intensive productivity has to offer, does not dissuade me from betting on efficiency as the winner in the long run.

In fact, the efficiency of direct value creation is what motivated the Green Hand Reskilling Initiative in the first place. For those just joining us for the first time, this blog was intended to promote a very simple community-building and skill-sharing strategy: displaying a sign with a green hand printed or painted on it to indicate one’s willingness to share knowledge with one’s neighbors. Born out of a statewide strategic meeting of Michigan Transition groups in 2010, it’s a low-tech, intrinsically local strategy that is elegant in its simplicity and efficiency – and, as a practical initiative, it’s basically gone nowhere.

However, recently I happened to read John Michael Greer’s blog post,” Dark Age America: The End of the Market Economy,” and I felt it lent some support for the inevitability of concepts such as the Green Hand in one form or another, and so I thought I’d share the connection here. One of the themes Greer has been following in this series of posts is about the collapse of civilizations, including ours, as the energy required to maintain a given level of complexity is no longer available. “Loss of complexity” in Greer’s post refers to all the aforementioned layers of structure that insert themselves between producer and consumer. Greer introduces the term disintermediation to describe the movement toward direct value transmission. This basically means the removal of all unnecessary layers of economic complexity in the process of value creation, including eventually money and all its associated costs. Disintermediation is the name he gives to the process of removing the administrative clutter from value creation, such as we saw when money, business, and machinery were efficiently bypassed by neighbors to overcome the problem of cars stuck in the snow.  

Greer’s point, if I read him correctly, is that these layers of complexity inevitably disappear as a society loses the net energy surplus that had supported them. The result, after a period of adjustment, is a relationship-based, land-centered, steady state economic arrangement that Greer identifies as feudalism. But the process takes time. It starts with people in straits finding workarounds in an economic system that is failing to provide what they need, often finding those workarounds in opposition to those who still striving to maintain the dying system.

I encourage everyone to read Greer’s blog, but for now this sketch should be adequate to help the reader understand why I would be inspired to draw a connection between the ideas Greer is sharing and the Green Hand Reskilling Initiative. Greer’s “disintermediation” is the essence of the Green Hand concept: direct exchange of information, skills, or what have you, all in the name of building a community resilience (read: a community with more than one way to get necessary tasks done). And while I conceptualized Green Hand being largely a gift economy in which, for example, everyone’s food security is enhanced by the dissemination of food production and food preservation skills among community members, disintermediation does not require the instantaneous abandonment of the market economy, nor does it require that everything be shared for free.  It happens also at a farmer’s market or roadside produce and egg stand, where money moves directly into the hands of the producer without distributors, managers, advertisers, marketers or other intermediaries taking a cut of the transaction. It happens when the woefully underused productive capital of the typical American kitchen is put to work turning raw commodities into tasty foods. It happens when you watch your neighbor’s kids for a day after getting some help repairing your brakes.

But while the compelling efficiencies found in a roadside transaction for sweet corn, for example, may be understandable to many (and they apparently are for the producer, anyhow), the concept of sharing skills for the sole purpose of having a skilled community is still a long stretch for people. We’re born into the thrall of the market. On some level, we think food comes from stores and believe that money has some kind of intrinsic reality when it’s simply a social construct. I’ve taken the money economy and markets to task several times in this blog (some of the more salient broadsides can be found here, here, and here). These articles also found a readership at the Post Carbon Institute’s and Energy Bulletin websites, but these are hardly mainstream venues. However, as immediate conditions on the ground get harsher, as we realize that we really don’t need most of the crap people are selling, and as it becomes obvious to many that Wall Street has become, at best, bloated administrative overhead, and more fundamentally, a nonproductive skimming and scamming operation, more people may be willing to start waking up from the hypnotic conditioning of money, at which point, mental barriers currently inhibiting all kinds of alternative economic arrangements will start to make sense. Whether the Green Hand plays a part in it or not is anybody’s guess, but I’m still advocating for personal relationships over money-mediated ones because some day we may find that “social security” is a door that opens for us when we’re standing in the rain.

Basically, the question I found myself asking this week was: What if Greer is right and we’re at the beginning of a long slide toward feudalism? You could call our current period 'nascent neofeudalism' if you like big, tasty words, or just “people figuring out smarter ways to be poorer” if you don’t mind plain English. Either way, I agree that it makes sense to start practicing ‘disintermediated’ (i.e., direct) value creation, as well as building the kinds of relationships that can collectively push our society forward when our economic machinery is spinning its wheels.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Inner Path of Permaculture

There’s something magical that happens for me around mid-July as we decidedly move out of the summer solstice time and I feel reenergized by a barely perceptible yet daily increasing tilt toward fall. I don’t think I’m alone in this, and as we get closer to the month of August and start accelerating toward the equinox, I often feel another, stronger uptick in nervous energy as the days grow shorter. Perhaps in this people are similar to squirrels busily fattening up on summer bounty. Maybe I’m on the same page as my garden leeks, which usually seem to suddenly realize after a few months in the ground that it’s time to get busy and start outwardly growing.

But I love mid-July because, even though I can feel the pace starting to pick up with each passing day, we’re also still plenty deep in the fat part of summer, a time known for bringing on midsummer dreams. I find myself caught up in little whirlpools of fascination everywhere, whirlpools that tend to get bigger the longer I participate in them. I think the languor brought on by summer's heat helps me relax into those places, too. As a gardener or walker in woods and meadows, I am certain I’ve learned as much by ambling about in this way as by disciplined study. Sitting down in the squash patch or resting on a fallen log for a while can be an educational experience, and at this time of year especially, it feels like there’s still time for some of this productive laziness.

Noticing way the tilt of the earth affects the inclinations of my mind and body brought me to a number of thoughts about permaculture as a personal journey. I am reminded of a few years ago when I read Sam Keen’s book, A Passionate Life. The basic idea I gleaned from Keen’s book is that humanity is in the midst of an erotic crisis, and the conflation of the erotic and the sexual is but one of the many symptoms of a broader cultural crisis at the root of many of our social ills. Keen takes his readers back to the original meaning of eros, which to the Greeks was understood as “the prime mover of stars and acorns and the affairs of men.” (p. 26) 

Setting aside for a moment the obvious error evident in the quote above — did the Greeks leave women out of a discussion about eros? — the immediate point is that eros moves everything, which perhaps also explained for them why people, squirrels and leeks all tend to step it up a notch at certain times of year. However, by relegating our conception of the erotic only to what happens in our bedrooms, there is a tendency in our culture not to see how this same forward-leaning impulse of life also moves in our thoughts and feelings, and how it forms the driving energy behind our households, communities, and workplaces. It is easy to forget how this thing that moves us, call it what you will, also connects us to everything else that moves. This connection spans everything from the slowly moving mountains to things most ephemeral: the flash of insight, the bursting of an angel’s trumpet into flower.

This is highly significant, because from what I’ve seen, the strongest practitioners of permaculture are not first and foremost the most learned people. Yes, they do tend to amass considerable, even amazing stores of knowledge, but the most essential quality of real permaculture practitioners is their aliveness to their world, since only by being alive to the world can we align our livingness with it.

However, we run into strong cultural headwinds here. The culture tends to separate things, and our inner schisms ultimately manifest as an overdeveloped capacity to compartmentalize. This in turn is reflected in the structures and systems we design. These external structures tend in turn to militate against awareness of our profound connection with all of life. Modern agricultural practices show one of the more grisly outcomes: the reproductive power of plants and animals is here commandeered and dominated in a way that would make most devoted sadists woozy. We lay waste to the fertility principle. I suggest we do so because we have not adequately cared for our own, and more broadly for that thing now beyond the pale of science that Keen hints at —perhaps we should just call it life.

Keen writes, “First love and sex, like value and fact and mind and matter, were separated. Love became a private, subjective emotion, a way of feeling about another person. Its cognitive status was denied; it was not considered a way of knowing. Modern philosophies of science rejected as sentimental nonsense Augustine’s conclusion that we can only know what we love.” (p. 15) Yes, that does sound like science: Get rid of that fluffy-headed “love” stuff! 

But we see where that takes us, right?  It brings us exactly to where we are, and I honestly think we can do better than this. Love may not be reasonable, but that doesn't mean there is no reason for it. Still, there are those who would say that it is naïve to include feelings in our ways of knowing, or even deny the possibility of connecting with the pulse of life that moves us. Some look at the state of the sciences and say and that what is needed to rectify the absence of these inner connections is a stronger code of ethics. From my perspective there is no evidence to support the idea that external measures will support life-enhancing action in any field when the inner connections to life are lacking or disregarded.

Later in his book, Keen elaborates on the observation that we treat the earth precisely as we treat our bodies. This should come as no surprise, because the two are one and the same. Thus, the junkie and the industrialist, both under their own kinds of anesthesia, become addicted to spilling toxic substances into living streams, be they blood vessels or rivers, and the CAFO operator is, in every sense of the word, a pervert.

In a way, it’s a bit of an irony (and perhaps a great moral victory!) to even study permaculture as I first did, in a university biology department, given the extent to which science has become the handmaiden of industry and a tool for the abstract, symbol-driven world of monetary gain. Take a look at the people who really care about the practice of permaculture and we see that it’s about making connections, and the deeper motives of these people must align with those of the natural systems in which they are embedded. Thus, and this is really the main insight I’m offering here, there is another axis of permaculture practice that intersects with the art and science of arranging elements on a given piece of land. This other axis, the one I’m calling the inner path of permaculture, goes straight through the living heart of the designer.

The importance of this axis is obliquely hinted at when we look at the crucial role of observation in the design process. What moves the designers’ eyes?  What sublime impulse walks us forth?  What moves our thoughts, our feelings, and what brings forth remembrances that lead to sudden conceptions, ideas, and the creative upwelling of inspiration?  In a very real sense, our ideas spring from the soil of our minds as the flora and fauna of that inner terrain. “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as Dylan Thomas wrote . . . yes, that too drives us.

This is why it’s so important to follow those little whirlpools of fascination, the ones that that get bigger the longer one looks, even if it takes a bit of time. Through them, the world looks into us as lovers, touches and dialogs with us, and moves us to its side. When we feel the ancient depth and urgency in the rise and fall of each breath that we take as part of earth, we will know ourselves as well as the planetary system that meets and inspires us, breath by breath, with its own gifts and passion. A friend of mine once quoted, “I am the Earth walking,” and so likewise we must also be the Earth’s thought, speech, and feeling. Taken together, this is the consciousness of unity, and as a connecting science, the practice of permaculture ultimately requires nothing less.

Friday, April 25, 2014

If This Didn't Seem Impossible, It Probably Wouldn't be Necessary

A seed potato in a planting hole, April 2014
It’s been three years since I launched the Green Hand Reskilling Initiative as a way to generate community resilience in the face of economic and ecological shifts. The basic idea is this: display a sign at your residence with a green hand printed or painted on it to indicate your willingness to share skills. When I first put forward the idea at a strategic meeting of Transition groups from around Michigan in Feb 2010, the idea was warmly received, and subsequent conversations with knowledgeable people were very encouraging.

But so far, the simple idea – that physical signs in neighborhoods would generate conversations, skill sharing, and more resilient community, has gone nowhere. It seemed so elegant in principle, requiring no centralized organization, no expensive or hierarchical infrastructure, and no organized meetings except among interested and presumably local people as needed to meet immediate needs.

When I first started the Green Hand website and blog at the suggestion of my friend Ken and the help of my technologically astute daughter, it was intended to be a solutions-focused affair, a celebration of the possibilities of sharing and human ingenuity, promoting the Green Hand sign concept as a vehicle for community building.

Three years later, the blog might just be the most successful part of the project in terms of people I’ve reached, because as far as I know, I myself possess the only Green Hand sign in existence. I wondered about this failure for some time as I continued with my increasingly sporadic blog postings and occasional presentations at community events. Was the problem my admittedly lackluster performance as a promoter and marketer of ideas, or with the idea itself?

While I’m certain I could do more as a promoter, before I renewed my efforts I felt that it would be a good idea to vet the concept’s viability again. As it turned out, I had the good fortune to encounter a  consultant in cooperative living with 20 years’ experience in the field. After sharing my "elevator pitch" version of the concept, I asked why the idea wasn’t getting any traction. He said simply: “We’re not ready for it yet.”

Is it really that simple? But then, I thought about what I’m really asking people to do by tracing their hand in green on a sign and posting it. It’s taking a public stand within a known community at a real location. It’s showing up as “different.” It’s opening the door to interactions with strangers. It’s identifying yourself as a person who values basic skills that may not get much attention or value in the world today. It’s saying that you’re willing to do something untried, unproven and maybe even a little bit nutty because it’s a dead certainty that the stuff we’re doing that seems ‘normal’ is leading to a nasty future. It’s saying: I’m here and I’m willing to trust my neighbors enough to start making (as James Howard Kunstler would put it) “alternate arrangements,” because in my view, it seems quite likely that our leaders in government and industry are planning for a future that isn’t going to happen.

In other words, participating in the Green Hand Initiative is asking a lot of people, socially, emotionally, and psychologically. It’s terrible but often true that when people get stressed, they tend to hold more firmly to dysfunctional coping strategies that may have worked in the past, even if they are now plainly part of the problem. Trying new things can get harder as it becomes more imperative.

However, the difficulty of each of the things the Green Hand concept asks of people – publicly identifying one’s self; reaching out in trust and build community solidarity, embracing novelty, ambiguity, uncertainty, and standing up in the face of potential ridicule, taking a stand for a future that isn’t here yet but could be by virtue of my standing for it – these are the very things we will ultimately have to do anyhow.

My conclusion is that the Green Hand Initiative is “failing,” at least in part, because it is asking of people precisely those behaviors and attitudes of mind that, were they the prevailing norm, would render the signs moot. Just as with individuals stepping "out of their comfort zone," in communities the contours of resistance delineate our areas of potential growth. Thus came to mind the maxim: If this project weren’t so impossible, it wouldn’t be necessary.

What to do about it?  Personally, although my blog postings have been irregular at best lately, when it comes to the actual Green Hand work of skill-sharing, plant-sharing, and relationship-building, I keep at it. On that level, I have never stopped. My driveway is becoming a veritable nursery of plants destined for new homes in other gardens. And, amazingly enough considering my location on a dead-end road, my Green Hand sign actually got noticed. One day in the middle of the record-setting winter we endured here in southeast Michigan, I was startled as I drove down my driveway to meet a visitor making his way toward me on cross country skis. He identified himself as a neighbor living some distance away who had seen a presentation I’d done at a local church. He’d seen my Green Hand sign and my fenced-in garden while skiing and wanted my contact info for a friend who was asking to know how to build a fence that keeps out deer and other animals. Of course, I’ll be happy to help. I’m also directly adding labor these days to other people’s gardens, and giving seeds, seedlings, slips, and offshoots away. Last year I estimate I gave away over 100 raspberry canes just as they were leafing out in spring, with maybe 50 or more of them going to one friend alone. A couple months later I received a photo of my friend’s grandson sitting by her new long row of raspberries, messily eating the ripe fruit from his hand.

But honestly, can this kind of thing really help to stave off or mitigate suffering as our high-energy culture sputters out of gas?  My response to that question is that the Green Hand idea is more than helping people grow food or learn other basic skills, it’s also about cultivating relationships in the process. In addition to relationships with plants, animals, wind, sun, rain and soil, I encourage everyone to build human relationships because at a very basic level, “social security” may come down to a door that opens when you’re standing in the rain.

As far as the work itself goes (supposing we as a culture are capable of better than shooting one another for canned goods if food delivery systems break down), we’re going to need to take productivity into our own hands somehow. There’s no time like the present to gather the treasure of last year’s fallen leaves and layer them in place to improve the soil, no better time than now to plant a tree or vine, no better time to befriend a property owner and offer to grow and share some food on an underused piece of land.

Do I honestly believe that the millions of garden spades hanging in the garages of America can make a difference in meeting the nation’s food needs if they were put to skillful use? Absolutely. If not, they wouldn’t have been called into service in the Victory Garden campaign of WWII.

And in addition to uprooting weeds and preparing soil, those shovels can also help dig out the pernicious idea that anything that isn’t the latest electronic gizmo from China is irrelevant to the future. On the contrary, I encourage you to put down your phone and pick up instead a handful of really good soil—at that moment you’re holding something of vastly greater subtlety and complexity. Plus of course, I’m planting potatoes in that soil today because, come November, it’s nice to know where to dig for them, and even nicer if I can find a friend willing to dig them up together. It’s amazing to see how they glow as they come out of the dark earth. You can almost bask in the stored sunshine.

So in the end I don’t see this project as impossible after all, because personally I’ve found a place to build from, and that’s all I can do. Scope and scale can come later, and hopefully will, as changing conditions continue to prompt social transformation.  I take some comfort in the thought that this and many other worthy ideas are slowly spreading, often underground and out of sight, and that they will be ready to sprout into action when we really need them.  For now, my approach is simply to share what I know, do what I can, spend time and work with those who appeal to me, and model what can be done with a piece of land. I can, in short, “be the change,” and if those I share with further expand the web by connecting with others, then maybe one Green Hand sign in the world is enough. At least – like the handful of bee balm roots I brought to a friend yesterday to encourage pollinators in her garden – it’s a start.