Sunday, July 20, 2014

Operation Protective Edge: One Hundred Thirty Nine Square Miles of Sand, Part I

""Mr. Balfour, supposing I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?" He sat up, looked at me, and answered: "But Dr. Weizmann, we have London." "That is true," I said, "but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.""

Operation Protective Edge, 2014
Events in Gaza fill us with deep sadness. We have friends in both Israel and Palestine who are swept into this conflict without wanting it. To them, as to us, it seems a doorless, windowless room. There is no escape, no illumination, no good reason for being there and no way to leave.

To get out of this room, we have to understand how it was built and why it is here. We have to cut a window to let some light in, and then build a door from the inside out.

When we first visited Israel, in the summer of 1991, Gaza City was much like the other ocean-front cities of the Mediterranean — stone buildings and winding streets, a long seawall, lovely beaches. Even though it had just been through the 1987 Intifada, it retained the charm of Jappa and Haifa. Fishermen gathered before dawn and shoved out with the tide, returning at midday with their catches. Shopkeepers sold antiques and fine needlework from stores below their homes. Apart from the tanks, barbed wire and ubiquitous IDF soldiers, Gaza Beach was a tranquil paradise.

In 1991 a young guard assigned to the Gaza Beach internment camp wrote for The New York Review of Books,  “One day, if there is a state called Palestine, its government will no doubt lease this piece of ground to some international entrepreneur who would set up a Club Med Gaza Beach.”

In 1948, Gaza City, and the “Gaza Strip” became the refuge of people fleeing war after their homes, olive groves, barns and villages were destroyed, their cattle and goats machine-gunned, and their water, sewage and electricity cut off. Then, in 1967, tanks arrived at the beach, and there was nowhere left to flee. Some lucky enough to escape went to Egypt, and when Egyptians were no longer willing to feed, house or employ the growing tide of refugees, they closed the border. Even then, Gazans dug long tunnels, or tried to cross by boat.

In 1991 that young Israeli prison guard wrote:
In Gaza it’s all straightforward and clear. There’s no place to hide. And I think: What if someone were to sneak a hidden camera in here? If only Robert Capa were alive. If only Claude Lanzmann were to make a film here. He would see a bored soldier who sits and solves crossword puzzles chewing on his pencil, under the apparently innocent sign: “Compound Number 1,” while another soldier, one or our charming Sabra types, a youth from a Tel Aviv suburb, walks around with a wreath of handcuffs over his shoulder.
Then he might turn his camera on the forty-one prisoners whom we shove into the narrow filthy detention cell in the government building in Gaza. They are awaiting trial. Because they have no room to move, because they are squeezed one against the other from morning until noon like cattle, they press ever more tightly up against the bars on the door to the detention cell so as to gulp in a little air. And because the door is too narrow for them all, some collapse, and some crawl under the legs of others. And the seven or eight who are caught on the bars appear, without intending or knowing it, as a kind of living statue, a mute poster of protest against imprisonment and oppression.
In that summer of 1991, near Dagania, the first kibbutz (1909), we laid wildflowers on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the conceiver of Israel, and placed a small stone on the grave of Rachel, the country’s first Poet Laureate. We walked with elderly IDF veterans to see the foxholes they had dug at the Jordan River in May of 1948. We immersed ourselves in the history of this place, visiting the chapel on the Mount of Olives and the archaeological dig at Capernaum. We stood upon the rock from which the young Jesus of Nazareth was said to hail the fishermen in the Sea of Galilee, telling them to cast their net on the other side of the boat.

Back in 1894, a Jewish lieutenant in the French Army, Alfred Dreyfus, was tried for treason. He was wrongfully accused, which soon became apparent, but with the anti-Semitic right-wing having taken power in Paris, and the French public inflamed, the Army feared public accusations of Jewish favoritism if Dreyfus was tried and acquitted. Dreyfus was scapegoated — summarily convicted and sentenced to prison.

In Paris to cover the trial for the Vienna News Free Press, Theodor Herzl was shocked at the open anti-Semitism he witnessed. If anti-Semitism could flourish in the most tolerant and progressive country in Europe, Herzl reasoned, Jews would only be safe in their own state. If they had to design a nation, what might it look like? Herzl imagined a socialist paradise — no poor, no ruling class, food and shelter for everyone. He wrote a bestselling book, The Jewish State, promoting his ideas, which eventually went viral as Zionism. Herzl’s reaction to the right wing excesses in France gave birth, half a century later, to the utopian dream of Israel.

In the late 19th century, facing growing persecution in Eastern Europe and pogroms in Russia, Jews began flowing to Palestine for refuge. Near Jaffa an agricultural school, the Mikveh Israel, was founded. Russian Jews established the Bilu and Hovevei Zion ("Love of Zion") movements to assist settlers, who created self-reliant experimental agricultural communes that sought to get beyond the utopian “Holy Cities” of the Ashkenazi-Jews and not rely on donations from Europe.

The hardy arrivals, mostly from Russia — the First Aliyah, some 35,000 between 1882 and 1903 — revived the Hebrew language, developed drip irrigation, and greened the desert. They blended into and got along with the complex mix of Druze, Bedouin and Christian and Muslim Arabs. By 1890, Jews were a majority in Jerusalem. In 1909 residents of Jaffa established the first entirely Hebrew-speaking city, Ahuzat Bayit (later renamed Tel Aviv).

We have previously written of the seminal role of Lady Evelyn Balfour in the creation of organic gardening and the founding of the first Soil Association. We have not previously mentioned her very interesting uncle, Arthur James, First Earl of Balfour, British Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905.

Lord Balfour is also known for his noble mien — the Balfourian manner. A journalist of his time described it this way:
“This Balfourian manner, as I understand it, has its roots in an attitude of mind—an attitude of convinced superiority which insists in the first place on complete detachment from the enthusiasms of the human race, and in the second place on keeping the vulgar world at arm's length. It is an attitude of mind … of one who desires rather to observe the world than to shoulder any of its burdens.”

"The truth about Arthur Balfour," said George Wyndham, "is this: he knows there's been one ice-age, and he thinks there's going to be another."

We are fond of Balfour, not just because he was apparently a protocollapsenik, but also because in his later years he argued that Darwin’s premise of selection for reproductive fitness cast doubt on scientific naturalism — the belief that there are no supernatural entities or processes — because human cognitive facilities that would accurately perceive truth would be at a disadvantage against competing humans genetically selecting for evolutionarily useful illusions.

While Balfour tilted towards the supernatural as a boon to humanity, his thesis goes a long way to explain the great smoldering track of the Advertising Age through our species’ inate common sense and our presently diminished capacity to survive the coming Anthropocene extinction.

Long evolved discriminatory abilities that assisted distant future pattern recognition and might have helped our survival are being bred out by twerking, gangsta rap, and The Shopping Network, leaving only the comfort of our illusions.

Despite his belief in the futility of action, Balfour, in his manner, could not resist the urge to meddle in world affairs. Like a child with an anthill and a magnifying glass on a sunny day he found special interest in Zionists. Meeting Chaim Weizmann, a wealthy British Zionist, in 1906, Balfour asked Weizmann what he thought of the idea of a Jewish homeland in Uganda, a British Protectorate.

According to Weizmann's memoir, the conversation went as follows:
"Mr. Balfour, supposing I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?" He sat up, looked at me, and answered: "But Dr. Weizmann, we have London." "That is true," I said, "but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh." He ... said two things which I remember vividly. The first was: "Are there many Jews who think like you?" I answered: "I believe I speak the mind of millions of Jews whom you will never see and who cannot speak for themselves." ... To this he said: "If that is so you will one day be a force." (Weizmann, Trial and Error, p.111, as quoted in W. Lacquer, The History of Zionism, 2003, p.188).
Flash forward 8 years to November, 1914 and the retired Prime Minister is now British Foreign Secretary as his country is at war with the Ottoman Empire over oil and the Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad. A fellow cabinet official, Herbert Samuel, circulates a memorandum entitled “The Future of Palestine” to his colleagues. The memorandum begins with "I am assured that the solution of the problem of Palestine which would be much the most welcome to the leaders and supporters of the Zionist movement throughout the world would be the annexation of the country to the British Empire.”

This prompted a letter* from Alfred, First Earl Balfour to Walter, Second Baron Rothschild, a prominent funder of the first kibbutzim. Balfour wrote:
“His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Mosul-Haifa pipeline reaches the coast in 1938
The overarching aim of Balfour was to gain support of both the Americans and the Bolsheviks for British aims in the Middle East. The Transjordan coast was strategically important as a check to Egypt at the Suez Canal, and there were already thoughts of a Mosul-Haifa pipeline to transport oil from Kirkuk. Two of President Woodrow Wilson's closest advisors, Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, were avid Zionists. Several of the most prominent Russian revolutionaries, including Leon Trotsky, were also. The Foreign Secretary wanted to keep both the USA and Russia in the war and used the potential separation of a Zionist state from Transjordan as bait.
“The gradual growth of considerable Jewish community, under British suzerainty, in Palestine will not solve the Jewish question in Europe. A country the size of Wales, much of it barren mountain and part of it waterless, cannot hold 9,000,000 people. But it could probably hold in time 3,000,000 or 4,000,000, and some relief would be given to the pressure in Russia and elsewhere. Far more important would be the effect upon the character of the larger part of the Jewish race who must still remain intermingled with other peoples, to be a strength or to be a weakness to the countries in which they live. Let a Jewish centre be established in Palestine; let it achieve, as I believe it would achieve, a spiritual and intellectual greatness; and insensibly, but inevitably, the character of the individual Jew, wherever he might be, would be ennobled. The sordid associations which have attached to the Jewish name would be sloughed off, and the value of the Jews as an element in the civilisation of the European peoples would be enhanced.
"The Jewish brain is a physiological product not to be despised. For fifteen centuries the race produced in Palestine a constant succession of great men - statesmen and prophets, judges and soldiers. If a body be again given in which its soul can lodge, it may again enrich the world.”
The Future of Palestine

In November 1918 the large group of Palestinian Arab dignitaries and representatives of political associations forwarded a petition to the British authorities in which they decried the hubris of the declaration. The document stated:
“[W]e always sympathized profoundly with the persecuted Jews and their misfortunes in other countries... but there is wide difference between such sympathy and the acceptance of such a nation... ruling over us and disposing of our affairs.”
Winston Churchill sided with the Arabs, saying in 1922, “I do not attach undue importance to this [Zionist] movement, but it is increasingly difficult to meet the argument that it is unfair to ask the British taxpayer, already overwhelmed with taxation, to bear the cost of imposing on Palestine an unpopular policy.

Arthur Balfour and his Declaration
The British Mandate of Palestine was confirmed by the League of Nations in 1922 and came into effect in 1923. The boundaries of Palestine initially included modern Jordan, which was removed from the territory by Churchill a few years later. The United States, whose Senate refused to join Wilson’s League of Nations, signed a separate endorsement treaty.

Between 1919 and 1923, 40,000 Jews arrived in Palestine, mainly escaping the post-revolutionary chaos of Russia and Ukraine (the Third Aliyah) where over 100,000 Jews had been massacred. These immigrants were called halutzim (pioneers) because they were experienced in agriculture and quick to establish self-sustaining frontier towns. The Jezreel Valley and the Hefer Plain marshes were purchased through foreign donations, drained and converted to agricultural settlements. A socialist underground militia, the Haganah ("defense") sprang up to defend outlying the outlying settlements.

Despite Palestinian Arab rioting in 1920 and 1922, 82,000 more Jewish refugees had arrived by 1929 (the Fourth Aliyah), fleeing pogroms in Poland and Hungary and rebuffed by the anti-Semitic United States Immigration Act of 1924.

The British governors of Palestine rejected the principle of majority rule or any other measure that would give the Arab population, who formed the majority, control over Jewish territory. The United States, whose strategic objective (oft quoted by comedian Robert Newman in A History of Oil) was “to bring democracy to the Middle East,” supported this policy, and still supports it today.

Following World War II, oil interests in the Middle East tilted western allies towards the Arabs. In an effort to win independence, underground Jewish militias waged a guerrilla war against the British. From 1929 to 1945, 110,000 Jews entered Palestine illegally (Bet Aliyah). Between 1945 and 1948, 250,000 Holocaust surviving Jews left Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia for refuge in Palestine. Most of these refugees were intercepted by the British and interred in squalid camps in Cyprus. Finally, under pressure from their Arab oil partners, the British had enough, and referred the whole matter to the United Nations.

The UN, looking at the status quo on the ground, drew this map, which is probably the worst partition ever conceived.

On November 29, 1947, in Resolution 181 (II), the UN General Assembly recommended a plan to replace the British Mandate with separate "Independent Arab and Jewish States" and a "Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem administered by the United Nations."

Neither Britain nor the UN took any action to implement the resolution and Britain continued detaining Jews attempting to enter Palestine. The British withdrew forces in May 1948, but continued to hold Jews of "fighting age" and their families on Cyprus until March 1949, anticipating what was about to happen.

What was about to happen was the delivery of the promised utopia to the Jews and a catastrophe for the Palestinians.

To be continued
 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Stephen Gaskin 1935-2014

"Eventually, Stephen will be reborn as a great oak, standing atop this knoll."

Stephen Gaskin, at The Farm in 2013
I heard a voice from heaven, saying unto me, Write, from henceforth blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: even so saith the Spirit: for they rest from their labours.
— Book of Common Prayer (1662)

As the trailing “mmmm” in my ahhhAAauuuuMMmmm moving slowly from the back of my throat forward to pinched lips dissolves into the chorus of birds and tree frogs I am left again in their raucus company, listening only to my breath and their voices. It is difficult to rise from meditation here in this beautiful spot, so I have begun noting my thoughts.
 
It is one week today since The Farm bid goodbye to Stephen Gaskin. I am seated in a forest glade at the highest point on the western Highland Rim of Middle Tennessee — 1120 feet above sea level. The sun has just risen and the forest is alive with birdsong and butterflies.

I remember this place from 40 years earlier, when it was open field and we were cultivating it for wheat, corn and soybeans. I drove the two-horse cultivator here. In 1973 I moved off Schoolhouse Ridge, where Stephen was my closest neighbor, up to Hickory Hill, a short hike from where I’m now sitting. The oaks there, top-graded in the 1940s, are now bigger than two people can stretch around and touch hands.

The birdsong here is very diverse. It’s an emergent forest and these trees are no more than 30 years. The self-selection, after The Farm quit commercial agriculture in the mid-1980s, favors flowering varieties like dogwood, wild cherry, juniper and sumac, efficient resource scroungers in these ridge-top soils and part of the early succession stage that is reclaiming Shoemaker Field. Species common in early seres – growth rate maximized (R-selected) – usually focus on rapid extraction of resources and intense photosynthetic production even at the cost of efficient nutrient use. These colorful, scented and attractive pioneers will be replaced later by a more stable and balanced (K-selected) sere of locust, ash, sourwood, oak and hickory, much as we see on the other ridges. The bacterially dominant soils, useful for crops of vegetables and grains, will give way to fungal-dominant soils, and these speedy pioneers will be shaded out, die and decompose to provide space and supplies for succession.

All things garden. The rains will remove the traces of the clay that’s been turned when the grave was dug. Small saplings will send their roots down to consume any nutrient value in his body. Eventually, Stephen will be reborn as a great oak, standing atop this knoll, just near the summit of what the geodesic map calls Mt. Summer.


From Living on Earth by Alicia Bay Laurel
It was almost exactly 43 years ago this week that I stretched out on a giant boulder in Tuckerman’s Ravine in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and began turning the pages of Monday Night Class, a collection of transcripts of Stephen’s talks from 1967-70 published by a San Francisco co-op called Book People. What struck me as I read through the un-numbered, purple-inked pages was less about the philosophy or the Haight Ashbury scene than about a deeply penetrating sense of “these are my thoughts,” and “somebody has been having the same take on it as I do,” and “this guy is really good.”

A year later I was doing a through hike of the Appalachian Trail (a similar experience to that of Cheryl Strayed in Wild, soon to be a Reese Witherspoon film) and decided to stop at The Farm. I never left. I am here still. And the reason is something very close to what happened to me reading Monday Night Class. I was struck by how familiar it seemed. How right.

In a way that succession from R-sere to K-sere is an apt metaphor for The Farm and its relationship with Stephen. When we were probing for a way out of the militaristic mindset of the ‘50s, the exploitive brainfog of the adolescent ad age, with nihilistic consumerist growth madness auguring planetary ecocide, we found in Stephen amazing attributes of clarity, charisma (not a word he would've condoned), courage and willingness to step up to leadership and point us all towards a saner way to be, collectively. We pioneered, like weeds in barren soil, and birthed a new culture. We forged a steady-state, bioregional alternative to petrocollapse and the Venus Syndrome. We made it work, and we made it fun.

But that early stage of pioneering is no more sustainable than trying to live in a lifeboat. The juvenile growth phase is characterized by rapid morphological change (settling the land, building roads, water systems, schools, homes, businesses, etc., fighting off predators, and consuming your seed matter (our inheritances, our youth, our cheap fossil sunlight). For us, the limits to growth were slammed into by the early ‘80’s, and we found ourselves still inextricably tied to the larger economy (hospitals, energy, commerce, taxes), mired in debt (in no small measure from Stephen’s fearlessness — example: when on impulse he purchased a lemon semitractor-trailer without adequate inspection — and the Farm mechanics awarded him a Golden Bolt).

Historian Donald Pitzer has called what we experienced “developmental communalism.” Having a shared purse and not keeping score works great for R-sere societies, but once they have established they cannot keep growing without overrunning both resources and patience. At some scale they become less governable and corruption creeps in.

We had overgrown our rudimentary infrastructure and reached a crossroads — go back to something smaller and more pure by way of quaint example, or tune in, step up, and try to change the world by up-blending. As a rural commune we had made too many claims on underlying resources — a reckoning was required. Whether we wanted to be more mainstream or not, it had to happen. Given the mounting debts and legal threats, we could not keep the land otherwise. In 1984 we had our “Changeover” that revised the agreements. It was a new deck of cards.

When I first arrived in November, 1972, Stephen and his entourage were just leaving on a speaking and book/album launch tour. I spent most of that winter experiencing the trials and tribulations of an experimental community that did not have, nor seem to need, much leadership or organization.
I would say one of my perennial disagreements with Stephen was over his strong antipathy to organization. It was evident to me, as a young paralegal eager to see everything made legally robust and bulletproof, that Stephen was determined to undermine anything that smacked of central authority or codifed rules. He did not want community by-laws or covenants, but eventually allowed me to gather up our “agreements,” so we could list those in the Supreme Court appeal about cultivation of marijuana for religious use (the appendix appears in a book published as The Grass Case). It took more than ten years before we eventually formed a “Constitutional Committee” to draw up by-laws for The Farm.

The Supreme Court brief has a delightful hippy flair, describing the agreements of the religious society and showing early pictures of the community. Stephen, as head of his own legal team, insisted that no "legal technicalities" be employed in the defense strategy, even though he might well have been acquitted on the unlawful warrant and bad search. Instead, as the brief illustrates, he wanted to tell the "system" simply what the truth of the matter is — that government has no business interfering with how people come to God. He gave a year of his life — behind bars, in prison — for the privilege of raising the point in that way.

Like any man, he made mistakes, sometimes catastrophic, with consequences that affected the many who relied on his judgment. He excelled not just in strong leadership but in boneheaded stubbornness, which might work well in situations requiring courage under stress, but not when what is needed is to anneal energy in a fractious group. Stephen was just a man. But what an extraordinary man he was. When he died the remembrances came cascading in.

In Stockholm, Right Livelihood Award Founder Jakob von Uexkull reflected,

"Stephen Gaskin received the first Right Livelihood Award in 1980 for the work of PLENTY International. The name says it all: Stephen believed that there is plenty for all if we share. PLENTY aid projects have been very effective because they were run by people who understood the differences between misery, poverty and voluntarily living simply from personal experience. Stephen represented a different, hopeful vision of America. He has inspired several generations by showing how materially simple and spiritually rich lives are possible today and can guide us to a sustainable future."

Manitonquat (Medicine Story) said Stephen, whose Right Livelihood Award was in part for his work with indigenous peoples, was a "pioneer thinker and inspiration in our work to change the world by way of more human, more compassionate communities consciously created and fashioned to activate our human need to be helpful and make life more wonderful for all people."

Mark Madrid, a long-time resident of The Farm and part of the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, said:

“In our Mvskoke culture, there is the Micco (the one) the Empv'nvke (the Speaker) and the tvs'tvnvke (Security/ Enforcers). He was the Speaker, voicing the peoples mind.”
Dan Sallberg wrote:
“It was January, 1971 and I was 21 years old. My daughter was a month old. I was unemployed. We were living on welfare and food stamps. I volunteered to be a receptionist at the Pasadena Free Clinic, just for something to do. I found an interview with Stephen Gaskin in a copy of Mademoiselle Magazine. I’m pretty sure it had something to do with the school-bus caravan lecture tour. I know I read the whole interview. I forget most of it. But there was one part that changed my life forever. Mr. Gaskin advised anti-establishment hippies to get off welfare and stop mooching off the establishment, and to get involved in positive, alternative activities that would create a better world. A month later I was the graveyard dishwasher and janitor at a 24-hour a day vegetarian restaurant called H.E.L.P. (Health through Education creates internal Love which manifests Peace within) Restaurant on the corner of 3rd and Fairfax in Los Angeles. Three months later we got off welfare. I stayed in the natural foods business for another 15 years until it outgrew me and I eventually became a math and science teacher for students with special needs. Thank you, Stephen”
Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak said:
"In every walk of life we take care of each other and owe all that we achieve to friends and family. How we treat other humans is much more important than creating products and wealth. Our principles in life should always be much more important than that. As much as we can teach others, our actions and examples pass on the goodness in our heads to others. Thank you for inspiration at a critical time in my life when I was deciding what sort of person I wanted to be."

Martin Holsinger, now a radio show host in Nashville, said:

“The Farm as ‘Stephen’s family monastery’ for all its imperfections, was the best home I ever had, an experience I have been trying in vain to recreate ever since it came unglued in the early 80’s. Thank you, Stephen, for helping me and so many others live in a better world, even if only for a few years, and thank you for pointing me to Buddhism, which in so many ways has carried on the changes in me that you helped initiate. Thank you for my first marriage, for my children, my grandchildren, and my soon-to-be great grandchild. My children, and their children, are here because of you. Thank you for encouraging me to maintain a friendly but uppity attitude towards authority/mainstream culture. I am who I am because of you, and I have always been grateful to you for that.

Lois Latman recalled:

“One thing I remember about Stephen is him giving away two houses that the construction crew built for him and his family in the early 70's. The first one that got built on second road, he wouldn't move into, but gave it to a group of single mothers. The second one, Kissing Tree, he gave to my Uncle Bill and his caregivers. Stephen remained in an army tent with his family, which he eventually replaced by a house on the same site. He did not want to live above the means of the rest of the community.”

Elizabeth Barger, who publishes The Farm Freedom Press, wrote:

“Many of us remember that he said he was not “the leader” but a teacher who might teach us something that would be useful to us. I think he did that a while ago. The Farm has been moving forward for some time since his retirement. The teachings are good and the spirit is strong. The place we call The Farm remains as a growing marker for the experiment to continue.”

Spider Robinson, science fiction author, wrote:

“Stephen spent most of every day scheming ways to make this world a better, kinder place—with an unusually high success rate. I consider him one of the wisest, most compassionate men I’ve ever met, and the most generous. Without him Jeanne and I would never have been chosen Celebrity Judges for the 2001 Amsterdam Cannabis Cup, one of the happiest gigs we ever had, and the first time we ever seriously impressed our daughter with her parents’ fame. Our own Nova Scotia commune, the Moonrise Hill Gang, basically existed because a bunch of us had heard about what Stephen was doing, and wanted to emulate it ourselves.  It didn’t work because we had no Stephen.

“But I suspect we may have to wait awhile before someone emerges to become the next Stephen.

 
“He was one of the best human beings I ever met, flawed like all humans, but fundamentally good to his shoes, and unless we get really lucky, we won’t see his like again soon.”

The “newsers,” as Stephen would call them, as usual, got the obits wrong. Some, like The Tennessean and the Washington Post landed not far from the mark. The Post quoted Stephen saying of the Changeover, “I’m a beatnik. I honestly liked it better when it was a circus… But I also like being solvent.” Others, like CNN and The New York Times were wildly disrespectful, hammering on the 1971 drug bust (ironically, since Tennessee recently became the 4th US State to legalize marijuana cultivation), the number of Green Party votes he got in the Presidential primary, or other distractions. In all, more than 100 newspapers around the world ran stories.

Those who knew the man well knew his heart was as big as the moon. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here is a short video clip from 1974. (If it doesn't display properly, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ht9z1ingSZc)





I think watching this video in the community center at Sunday services, just following the meditation, was the peak for me of many powerful experiences of the past weekend. Being someone who does public speaking now I am always watching moves and picking up on technique. That short talk defies any such dissection. It was from the heart from someone who was absolutely at the top of his game. The talk pulled together the "three-legged stool" of social justice, ecology and steady-state economics. It addressed ecological limits as though it were 40 years later. Remarkable especially when you put that scene in the context of Stephen in 1974, when he was serving time in the State Penitentiary. He walked out of the pen in cuffs, changed to that white turtleneck and embroidered jean jacket, was driven down to The Farm, spoke and then turned around and went right back the other way, into cuffs and stripes again, day-furlough ended. There was not the slightest trace of that context at all in the delivery, just the larger message, with sure, steady voice, straight from the heart. Awesome.

If I have any gripes about the uplinked video it I wish that it could have started 3 or 4 minutes earlier. Stephen says nothing. He rises from the meditation. He picks up the microphone. He looks up. He catches eyes here and there. He looks back down, seeming to think about what he might say. He looks up again, looks around. Breathes. Smiles. Looks thoughtful. Looks back down. This goes on a long time.  I understand why it was deleted but again, I am a public speaker now. I would find it very difficult to share so much “dead air time” with an audience. He had absolute confidence that people would forgive him while he gathered his thoughts to speak, and so said nothing. And then he was ready, and the tape begins.

After morning service in the community center, his partner Ina May hosted a reception at Stephen’s home, where he had passed quietly after being bedridden and in progressive decline for many months. He was still in good humor and wisecracking to the end.

At the morning service, his oldest daughter, Dana, spoke first, after the video.

“To say my father was charismatic is a gross understatement.  His compelling charm and strength of conviction is how we all got here, how this place came to be.  As a kid I thought I had to stand in line to be with him, take my turn like everyone else.  I was in my teens before he told me different.

Stephen and Dana, 1962
My dad shared his love of books and reading with me early.  When I got tired of kids books, he handed me Doc Strange comic books, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, the Tolkein trilogy, Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and Parmahansa Yogananda’s, Autobiography of a Yogi, which read like science fiction.  I’m so grateful to him for introducing me to the joys of getting lost in stories and for sharing his favorites with me.

My dad loved heroes.  In the face of difficulty, he’d proclaim, "Here I've come to save the day!" from the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon radio show.  And he always tried to do that, save the day - "Out to Save the World" was his stated destination.  I’m grateful to have grown up around people who believed that making meaningful change is possible.  Plenty International, the Farmer Veteran Coalition, and many other farm-grown organizations continue that important work.

Most of you know that my dad was a Marine and served in Korea.  When he came home in 1954, he had the shakes, shellshock, what we know now as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.  My mom says he tried drinking it away – luckily his stomach wouldn’t take that.  Marijuana helped him with stress relief for decades.  That and his favorite ‘trash:’ Candy Corn, Circus Peanuts, Red Hots, Necco Wafers, and Heath Bars, saw him through.  

My dad loved cars as much as he loved road trips.  I’ve been through every state but Alaska on road trips with my dad, and down to Guatemala twice.  He loved adventure.  I am comforted by the thought that this new adventure is just another road trip for him: The ultimate road trip.  Like Swami Beyondananda says, "The bad news: There is no key to the universe. The good news: It was never locked." 

Stephen confounded many in his family and the community by asking his son to carry his body deep into the forest and bury it in an unmarked grave. This place.

This is not a biographical sketch. Others have done that more will still do that. I cannot attempt that here. When I'm first got to know Stephen I was 25 and he was someone I looked up to, a wise elder who was not afraid to admit his mistakes or foibles. Now I am 67, and I know he was right most of the time. As someone who walked in his footprints to learn what he knew and was inspired to exceed even what I thought in my wildest imagination might be possible, I have nothing but gratitude.

All I can say is, goodbye friend, it has been really, really great. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Summer is Coming


" Studies such as these help us gaze into the uncertain future and ask if that is what we want for our children. Most of us don’t. A few of us actually try to do something to change it. For the rest, the lag time is comforting. The complexity of non-linear feedback systems gives us an excuse to procrastinate."


Why are zombies so ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture? The HBO mini-series, Game of Thrones, supplies one theory. Unlike in the AMC series, Walking Dead, or in the film, World War Z, the undead are not coming on like a Blitzkrieg hoard. Rather, the White Walkers are building slowly, as a rumor, sometimes killing the messenger and leaving the message undelivered. “Winter is coming” is an expression that hangs in the air, deepening the sense of foreboding.

One reviewer (for The New York Times) observed that “bringing in the White Walkers might be a way to ultimately point up the pettiness of politics — which is to say, no one cares who sits on what throne once zombies start eating people.” Thrones’ first four seasons of “people slicing, stabbing, axing, poisoning, eating, crushing and moon-dooring one another in every possible context,” underscore the point — that the pettiness of politics still rules the day. 

Game of Thrones resonates because outside the window is the drama of NATO expansion bumping up against retired Red Army vets in the Ukraine, the unmasking of shadow banks in the U.K. by the Financial Times and shadowing governments by Edward Snowden, or the sniper battle on the U.S. Republican right that is so entertaining to MSNBC and CNN. It is all much ado about nothing. Just North of our popular culture Wall is a climate juggernaut, building momentum.

Last month John P. Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, released the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA3). If you missed the news, it was because the report was all about the White Walkers no one wants to talk about.

By the end of this century, a 2.75°C to 5.5°C global temperature rise is projected, based on continued higher emissions — fracking, coal, deep ocean and other sources being exploited to the maximum (referred to as the “A2 scenario”) — and a roughly 1.7°F to 2.8°C rise under a cutback scenario (“B1”) — best understood as a Peak Oil/Financial Collapse scenario, because governments would never agree to such drastic measures — 80% in a decade or so —  if further stalling were an option. The NCA3 projections are based on results from 16 supercomputer climate models in a comparison study.

Both scenarios — business as usual and drastic curtailment — produce a temperature and climate regime that would likely be lethal for modern civilization, if not the human race. In the Cancun round of the Committee of Parties in 2010, United Nations high level negotiators produced a general agreement — over the opposition of the USA, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Israel and other obstructionists — that "recognizing that climate change represents an urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet,” 2°C was the “line in the sand” beyond which global temperatures should not be allowed to climb. In the latest three rounds— Durban, Doha and Warsaw — there has been a strong push from the science and civil sectors to reduce the target to 1.5°C to avert potentially unmanageable risks of tipping points from which no recovery would be possible. Since Warsaw last December some of these points — the inexorable slippage of ice in Antarctica and the release of methane from permafrost to name two — have tipped. 

The NCA3 study is saying, essentially, we are in dangerous territory whether we stop emissions tomorrow or not. Summer temperatures in the U.S. have been rising on average 0.4 degrees F per decade since 1970, or about 0.2 C. Average summertime temperature increase has been 1°C overall, but the Southwest and West regions have borne the brunt of those increases, and temperatures have risen an average of 0.4°C, with a few localized areas warming as much as 0.6°C per decade. This is 5 times faster than the Earth as a whole warmed in the 20th century. North America, which lags other parts of the planet, is now in an exponential curve of accelerating change.

After release of the study, John Holdren told Yale 360:  
“There are a number of findings in this report that sound an alarm bell signaling the need for action to combat the threats from climate change. For instance, the amount of rain coming down in heavy downpours and deluges across the U.S. is increasing; there’s an increase that’s already occurring in heat waves across the middle of the U.S.; and there are serious observed impacts of sea-level rise occurring in low-lying cities such as Miami, where, during high tides, certain parts of the city flood and seawater seeps up through storm drains. These are phenomena that are already having direct adverse impacts on human well-being in different parts of this country.”

Studies such as these help us gaze into the uncertain future and ask if it is really what we want for our children. Most of us don’t. A few of us actually try to do something to change it. For the rest, the lag time is comforting. The complexity of non-linear feedback systems gives us an excuse to procrastinate.

Nelson Lebo, writing for Wanganui (NZ) Chronicle, says:
On a very large scale, most climate scientists say that much of the excess heat energy that the Earth is currently absorbing is going into the world’s oceans. They refer to oceans as “heat sinks.” The major concern with this situation is that the ‘sinks’ will become ‘sources’ in the future. In other words, the chickens (massive amounts of heat energy) will come home to roost (wreak havoc on us with extreme weather events).
While this energy is being stored in the oceans everything appears to us to be OK. It is a lot like running up a large debt. … This is the same strategy that U.S. President Bush (the second) used with the Iraq War. He did not tax Americans to pay for the war, but put it on the national credit card. There were few complaints at the time, but now after a trillion dollars we hear complaints about the “unsustainable levels of federal debt” in America.
Similarly, climate scientists continue to warn of “unsustainable levels of carbon debt,” but I suspect more and more people will echo them in the future, especially because another and perhaps more ominous delay is also built into the climate system.
Once fossil fuels are burned the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for decades causing more and more warming. Many scientists say that even if we stopped burning all coal, oil and gas today that we would continue to experience the effects for the better part of most Wanganui Chronicle readers’ lifetimes.
Earlier this week investment guru CharlesHugh Smith told his readers: 
In my opinion, markets reflect a dynamic somewhat akin to the Heisenburg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics, which holds that precision is fundamentally limited by Nature: the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. In an analogous fashion, the more precisely we can determine the likelihood of a trend change, the less precisely we can determine the timing of the trend change–and vice versa. 
Which takes us back to what we posted previously with respect to Dennis Meadow’s chart of non-linear responses. Like a coastal landscape shaped by extreme storm events, the Anthropocene arrives in leaps and droughts. We can tell the direction of the trend.  The timing is anyone’s guess.

And the White Walkers are just beyond the wall.
 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Empire on Empty

"If the US can cut the flow of Russian gas through Ukraine - letting Ukraine siphon off Europe’s supply would suffice - then the price will float to a point LNG transatlantic imports make sense."

The West Point Interview, Annotated

NPR's Steve Inskeep interviewed President Obama when he was at West Point to deliver the commencement address last month. That address and the one he gave at UC Irvine yesterday point up the contradictions that anyone can easily see in the man, his policies, and the state of the American Empire as it peers over the precipice of petrocollapse.

STEVE INSKEEP: As you look at the moment of history that you occupy, do you think you can put into a sentence what you are trying to accomplish in the world?


PRESIDENT OBAMA: I'm not sure I can do it in a sentence because we're fortunate in many ways. We don't face an existential crisis.


NOTE: Except for the impending extinction of life on Earth due to profligate resource usurpation by a single species, something that might have been averted if COP-19 in Copenhagen had not been torpedoed. That was arguably the most historic moment of the Obama presidency.
 

We don't face a civil war.

NOTE: Except for the imminent succession of Vermont. Oh, and maybe an uprising by the 99% unless Tim Geithner can come up with more bread and circuses. 


We don't face a Soviet Union that is trying to rally a bloc of countries and that could threaten our way of life.

NOTE: Except for Russian subs roving the Arctic with enough firepower to destroy every city in the US larger than Charlotte, North Carolina in less than 5 minutes, and at least two other countries working towards the same capabilities. 


Instead, what we have is, as I say in the speech, this moment in which we are incredibly fortunate to have a strong economy that is getting stronger, no military peer that threatens us, no nation-state that anytime soon intends to go to war with us. But we have a world order that is changing very rapidly and that can generate diffuse threats, all of which we have to deal with.

And I think that the most important point of the speech today for me is how we define American leadership in part is through our military might, but only in part, that American leadership in the 21st century is going to involve our capacity to build international institutions, coalitions that can act effectively, and the promotion of norms, rules, laws, ideals and values that create greater prosperity and peace, not just in our own borders, but outside as well.


NOTE: And drones.


Is your sentence then pursuing U.S. interests abroad without going to war?


Well, there are going to be times where we might have to go to war. And that's why I think it's very important for us not to get into these simplistic ways of thinking about it, [that] either we pull back entirely and we're isolationist, or alternatively, every problem around the world is ours to manage. Rather, you know, what we have to do is clearly define where is it in our national interests to use military force, sometimes unilaterally. And typically when we have direct interests, core interests, our safety, our security, our livelihoods, the protection of our allies, you know, international opinion matters, but we may have to act on our own.


When it comes to the kinds of issues, though, that dominate the headlines — a conflict in Syria, a Russian incursion into Ukraine, the kidnapping of 200 young girls in Nigeria — in those circumstances, we are going to be most effective when we use a wide range of tools — diplomacy, sanctions, appeals to international law.


NOTE: Legal, or at least legitimized, actions are our first recourse when there is no oil involved. If we are talking about oil, that is another matter.


In some cases, a judicious use of military force may make sense.


What should leaders like Syria's Bashar Assad or Russia's Vladimir Putin take away from this speech, in which you did speak passionately about not going to war unnecessarily and said you were haunted by the deaths of American soldiers?


Well, I think they can take away from it that they have to be on guard when they act outside of international norms, that we are going to push aggressively against them.


NOTE: Such as by setting up a CIA station under the guise of an embassy in Bengazi whose principal mission was to move arms to the Syrian contras and otherwise destabilize the government of Syria, a UN member country with an elected government. It is unfortunate, for the State Department, that the Bengazi Embassy got caught in a crossfire, but so far the White House is handling the cover-up quite well. Of course, with this crop of Republicans and Tea Party Mad Hatters, that is not difficult. Even Hillary could do it.


We're not always going to push using military actions initially. There may be circumstances in which we mobilize in the international community to take international action. But as I spoke about, when you look at events in Ukraine over the last two months, there is no doubt that our ability to mobilize international opinion rapidly has changed the balance and the equation in Ukraine. I just spoke yesterday to the newly elected president of Ukraine.


NOTE: This would be
Petro Poroshenko, our man in Kief, who was elected to succeed Ihor Kolomoyski, who was appointed by Yulia Timoshenko, whose ally (Arseni Yatsenyuk) was chosen by US regional station chief, Victoria Nuland, wife of Robert Kagan, Council on Foreign Relations member, and co-founder of the think-tank Project for the New American Century (of Iraq War fame) to lead the post-coup government.  Victoria Nuland is the former principal deputy foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney and later U.S. ambassador to NATO. The cost of her little coup in Kief was $5 billion US taxpayer dollars.

Mr. Putin has just announced that he is moving his troops back from the borders of Ukraine. And that's an application of American leadership that is sustainable, consistent and is most likely to produce the kinds of results we want.


NOTE: Moving the Red Army two steps back is not enough. The Project for a New American Century calls for expanding NATO into an encirclement of Russia. Ukraine is just the latest domino to fall. The February 22nd coup was engineered in Washington with assistance from rabidly anti-Russian Polish officials, and with the additional assistance of some fundamentalist far-Right Israeli-Ukrainians who were willing to work with Ukrainian neo-Nazis to get this done.


It's interesting about Ukraine, though, Mr. President, because a lot of analysts have looked at that situation and said this is an area where Putin may have had a weak hand, but he gained. He gained Crimea. He asserted his influence over Ukraine. You speak of Ukraine, though, as a success. Do you feel that you've been successful in achieving your aims?


You know, I think it's a mistake to think that somehow Mr. Putin reflected strength in this situation. Ukraine is not just next door to Russia. Ukraine, in the minds of most Russians, has been a central part of Russia for decades, for centuries. And from Mr. Putin's perspective, he was operating from a position of weakness. He felt as if he was being further and further surrounded by NATO members, folks who are looking west economically, from a security perspective. And even in Ukraine, the crown jewel of the former Soviet system, outside of Russia, an oligarchy that was corrupt was rejected by people on the streets. And so what you saw was a scrambling, a reaction to people in the Ukraine saying, we want a different way of life.


NOTE: And a Ukrainian Disneyworld would be nice, also.


The fact that Crimea, which historically is dominated by native Russians and Russian speakers, was annexed illegally does not in any way negate the fact that the way of life, the systems of economic organization, the notions of rule of law, those values that we hold dear, are ascendant, and you know, the other side is going to be on the defense.


NOTE: They can decide their own futures, as long as that does not include democratically organized elections or referenda, such as the decision by an overwhelming majority — 96% of voters — in Crimea to rejoin Russia.


That doesn't mean that we think that Ukraine shouldn't have a good relationship with Russia. We think it should. And I have said directly to Mr. Putin we want, ultimately, Ukrainians to make a decision about their own futures, and that, I assume, will include strong relations with Russia as well as with Europe.

NOTE: Congressional chickenhawks, Fox and CNN want the US to become re-ensnared in Iraq now that ISIL/ISIS — jihadist zombies trained and equiped by the US to infect Syria — was drawn by the scent of blood to neighboring Iraq where it broke down the mall doors to get at the trillion-dollar Black Friday sale of abandoned military equipment and plush military bases, not to mention a bank job in Mosul that netted something north of $700 million.


The Obama Administration was quick to rule out re-insertion of Marines into Iraq, however. Strategic interests have now changed — Obama is being advised that the US will soon become the Saudi Arabia of natural gas (a Snake Oil  ruse if ever there was one) and the US strategic challenge will be to find foreign markets for all that gas. LNG transport makes gas very expensive (as would environmental controls on fracking). Only Europe can afford those kinds of prices, and they won’t as long as Russia can undercut the price with its Siberian gas. Déjà vu: the Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad plan that began World War I with British tank divisions taking Basra. If the US can cut the flow of Russian gas through Ukraine — letting Ukraine siphon off Europe’s supply would suffice — then the price will float to a point LNG transatlantic imports make sense.
 


You're going to make Russia give Crimea back. Do you have the ability or the leverage to do that? Well, you know, I think we're going to have to see how it plays itself out. I'm going to see Mr. Poroshenko, the newly elected president of Crimea — or newly elected president of Ukraine, next week, and I'm sure that'll be a topic of discussion.

NOTE: Petro Poroshenko, an Ukrainian billionaire businessman, is the fifth and current President of Ukraine.  From 2007 until 2012, he headed the Council of Ukraine's National Bank. Poroshenko owns, among a number of companies, a large confectionery business, which has earned him the nickname Chocolate King. Crimean State Council chair Vladimir Konstantinov is leading the Republic of Crimea until his parliament can choose a Prime Minister under the Crimean Constitution, which was approved by a parliamentary vote of 100 to 88 on April 11.


Let me ask about Syria, Mr. President… What, if anything, is different about the situation in Syria, as opposed to a couple of years ago, when some of your advisers wanted larger-scale training of the rebels, and I believe you declined.


Well, I think that's not an accurate portrayal of either what we have done or what the debate's been about…. Ultimately, I did not think then and I still do not believe that American military actions can resolve what is increasingly a sectarian civil war, and I also believe that, ultimately, the only way you're going to get a resolution that works for the Syrian people and the region is going to — is going to require some sort of political accommodation between the various groups there.


But what we can do is to work with the neighbors in the region — Jordan, Turkey, the Gulf states, Lebanon — to deal with the refugee flows that are coming out of Syria, to deal with the humanitarian crisis that exists there and to build on the framework, the progress that we have made over the last couple of years. We've seen some success in the Syrian opposition gaining more capacity, gaining more training, gaining more effectiveness; and building on some of that success, it is conceivable that in combination with the other work that is done on the diplomatic front, that we're able to tip what happens in Syria so that it's more likely that we can arrive at a political resolution.

Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan

Are conditions better now, then, for a more robust aiding of the rebels and training of the rebels than in the past?


Well, I wouldn't say the conditions are better. I think, in many ways, the conditions are worse. But the capacity of some of the opposition is better than it was before, which is understandable.


Think — think about who this opposition is. The moderate opposition, as opposed to the jihadists that have seen the chaos there as an opportunity to gain a foothold, those are hardened fighters. When you talk about the moderate opposition, many of these people were farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who didn't have a lot of experience fighting. What they understood was, is, that they had a government that was killing its own people and violating human rights in, in the most profound way, and they wanted to do something about it.


But creating a capacity for them to hold ground, to be able to rebuff vicious attacks, for them to be able to also organize themselves in ways that are cohesive — all that takes, unfortunately, more time than I think many people would like.


You've made some statements recently, Mr. President, that it seems you've been trying to put yourself in a historical context, if you can. You've talked about hitting singles and doubles on foreign policy. You talked about handing a baton from one president or one person in history to another. I wonder if you're at a point in your second term where even though there is well over two years to go, that you have to think about narrowing possibilities and a more limited list of things that you can realistically accomplish in the time you have left.
 

Well, I think that's always been the case. That was the case the first day in the Oval Office. You know, you don't walk into the presidency and completely remake the world and ignore history and ignore the problems that are already sitting there in the inbox. So you have to make choices about what's important and what's not.
 

It's interesting, though, you know, the comment I made about singles and doubles I think is — is only a partial quote. What I said was that when it comes to foreign policy, that oftentimes the United States has made mistakes not by showing too much restraint but by underestimating how challenging the environment is out there, not thinking through consequences, that there is a lot of blocking and tackling to foreign policy, to change sports metaphors, or, if you want to stick to baseball, that a lot of what you want to do is to advance the ball on human rights, advance the ball on national security, advance the ball on energy independence, to put the ball in play.
 

And every once in a while, a pitch is going to come right over home plate that you can knock out for a home run. But you don't swing at every pitch. And we have opportunities right now, for example, and I talked about today, to advance an Iranian agreement on their nuclear program that could be historic. We may not get it, but there's a chance that it could still happen. I have not yet given up on the possibility that both Israelis and Palestinians can see their self-interest in a peace deal that would provide Israel security that's recognized by its neighbors and make sure that Palestinians have a state of their own.
So there are going to continue to be opportunities that come up. And what we want to do is make sure we're in a position to seize those opportunities when they arise. But in the meantime, the work that we do to help countries in North Africa secure their borders and root out terrorism…

NOTE: With drone attacks on wedding parties and funerals, for instance. Unseen terror from above.
 

… you know, that stuff's not sexy. It's not going to be on the front page of the newspapers. But in many ways, that's what's going to ultimately be most effective; that's going to be what's going to most determine whether or not the United States retains its primacy and its leadership on the world stage in the 21st century.

NOTE: The way Star Wars was popular in the 20th Century. Drone Wars. A Galactic Empire. Darth Vader.


Mr. President, thanks very much.


I enjoyed it. Thank you.


NOTE: The President advised the students at UC Irvine yesterday: “You need to invest in what helps, and divest from what harms.” That was good advice.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Gathering of Silverbacks: Age of Limits 2014

"Whenever such large shifts in temperature occurred in Earth’s history, they were not gradual but came in lurches. Resilience is the capacity of a system to continue providing essential functions after receiving that kind of shock."


The first known use of the Infinite Improbability Drive was initiated by Zaphod Beeblebrox and Trillian on the starship Heart of Gold. Its major consequence was rescuing Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect from open space, at the probability of two to the power of 276,709 to one against. Other events that occurred, including those that occurred at a time of abnormality, include:
  • Lots of paper hats and party balloons appeared from a hole in the universe and drifted off in space.
  • A team of seven three-foot-high market analysts came from the hole and died from a combination of asphyxiation and surprise.
  • 239,000 lightly fried eggs fell out of the hole and onto the famine struck land of Poghril in the Pansel system. This caused the one surviving man of the Poghril tribe to die from cholesterol poisoning some weeks later.
  • Arthur and Ford appeared to be at the sea front at South End, and were passed by a man with five heads and the elderberry bush full of kippers.
Gail Tverberg fields questions from Orlov and Greer
Improbability is something we just have to come to better grips with. When we were young, we learned from those around us, hairless baboons like ourselves who had been here longer, in some cases much longer, that they were once young like us and that now they had grown up and gone on to be something like what we would eventually become. We learned that is how the world works. As we studied history and listened to the tales we were told, we constructed patterns to explain the world in terms of linear progressions. History marches. Spot the trend and follow the chart. Skate to where the puck will be.

Now, arriving at this new century we have to throw out that rule book. We are in the realm of highly improbable events that almost daily transform our world. The world our children and grandchildren will inhabit, and the rules they must learn to live by, or even invent, will be very different than those of our grandparents and their grandparents. For these momentous changes, one needs to seek some kind of guidance, and it can be difficult to find.


Orren Whiddon
Somewhere up a wooded ridgeline following a dirt road in the Appalachians on the Pennsylvania/Maryland/Kentucky border, by a hillside where a strong river cuts a deep gorge through limestone cliffs, you’ll find Orren Whiddon building ceremonial circles out of huge monoliths. Orren was raised in a Texas farm family, became a  machinist, and now, 57 with a greying beard, has been methodically putting together a small colony of would-be Anthropocene survivors and assembling a village-scale doomstead.

He wears torn bluejeans held by leather suspenders over a striped shirt recently stained with grease and spattered with sawdust from the machine shop where he spends his time on custom work when not roaming the land or sitting at a computer browsing RSS feeds of world news. Half-read books pile up on his desk, amidst stacks of scientific paper reprints, mail and notepads. Four Quarters InterFaith Sanctuary is a retreat for native and non-native worshipers, a place of sweat lodges and Beltaine fire circles, home to a large annual music festival, and one other event of note — this annual Age of Limits conference.


Of course, most USAnians don’t believe in limits, so this small conference is sparsely attended. The demographic seems to be white middle class, generally 35-60, two-thirds male, half of that bearded. There is a large Midwestern component — to glance around, it could be an Amway seminar.

“There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits to the human capacity for intelligence, imagination, and wonder," said Ronald Reagan in one State of the Union address. Those assembled here would beg to differ. Orren has put together a roster of speakers — Dennis Meadows, Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, Gail Tverberg, Mark Cochrane and others — who have been sussing out the challenges of climate change and peak everything and are preparing to field tough questions.

John Michael Greer
“When people insist, as so many of them do, that of course we’ll overcome the limits to growth and every other obstacle to our allegedly preordained destiny out there among the stars, all that means is that they have a single story wedged into their imagination so tightly that mere reality can’t shake it loose.” — John Michael Greer

Orren keeps talking about how hard dirt farming is, at the same time being skeptical of permaculture. As we go about preparing our talk we mull this paradox. Our view of the future is similar (and we are speaking personally here) to Professor Guy McPherson’s (a speaker at AoL 2013) — it is too late already for sustainability, whatever that word means — but our passing into the troubled future can be eased, just a bit, by whatever ecological restoration works we can accomplish and the redesign of human ecologies to sustain us within that remnant. We need not choose to live in ecovillages because we have moral responsibilities (Tolstoyan, Gandhian, Sarvodaya or Ananda Marga communities for example), although we do. We don’t choose because we are in the vanguard of a Great Turning, although we may be. We choose because these places, and the companionship they offer, are simply more fun!



Dmitry Orlov
This will form the core of our own two-hour talk — ecovillages as part of a shift from a K-type sere to an R-type sere such as John Michael Greer talks about in The Ecotechnic Future. By joining the next stage of succession early — moving from woody stemmed, overconsumptive, rapid growth pioneer species to more resilient, community-based, elegantly efficient, slow production varietals — we have homeostasis on our side.

In the green room (a.k.a the Loft at Four Quarters InterFaith Sanctuary), the night before his scheduled talk, a small group of us circled Dennis Meadows, the oldest of our group of silverback gorillas — as Orren is fond of calling us — and inquired about his lifelong apostate experience.

The findings of the famous 1972 study. Limits to Growth, and those that followed* concluded that the world can only sustain a limited human population and that at some point the planet’s ecological limit will be reached and then exceeded. These conclusions — arrived at by collaboration of some of the world’s best scientists — are still unpopular and largely ignored, if not ridiculed. 



Aurelio Peccei
For anyone unfamiliar with Limits to Growth, let us backtrack and mention the salient points of its history. The story really began with the remarkable insight of Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrialist who had joined the anti-fascist underground during the World War II and in 1944 had been arrested, imprisoned, tortured and almost executed. After the war he accepted a work assignment to South America that developed into a lifetime passion for long-range thinking that he applied to governments and private charities to tackle the problems of development. Peccei urged upon would-be movers and shakers a global perspective, for the long term, with a harder look at the cluster of intertwined problems he called "the problematique." At a meeting at Peccei’s home in April of 1968, the Club of Rome was birthed.

At around the same time, Jay Forrester, a computing pioneer, was working with John Collins, who had just retired from being mayor of Boston, on a book, Urban Dynamics, that appeared in 1969. The book dealt with population dynamics using advancements in computer processing power to model migrations. Forrester attended a Club of Rome meeting in Berne, Switzerland in 1970 and offered them his method. On the flight back to Boston, he created a very simple global model that he called “World-1.”

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Dennis Meadows assembled a team of 17 to take that preliminary model and elaborate it into a scientifically substantive and respectable tool for thinking about the future. They took two years to produce the first Limits study for the Club and a model called World-3. Immediately economists, scientists and political figures criticized the methodology, the computer, the conclusions and the people behind the project. Even many who agreed that growth could not continue indefinitely argued that a natural end to growth was preferable to intervention, or that, driven by classical economic theory, technology would solve all problems.



 

The other silverbacks asked: after his work was derided by the chattering media, and then by otherwise serious scientists, economists, politicians and world leaders, how had it affected Meadows?  The professor looked down at his chest and gave the question thought for a moment. Then this conversation ensued:

Dennis Meadows: One of the truisms of life is you should play the cards you are dealt, and not wishing you had another deck.

Gail Tverberg: We are not dealing with a closed system. We are getting energy from the sun all the time. Nature abhors a vacuum and nature also abhors energy that has not been dissipated. And one of those things that dissipates energy extremely well is civilization. So its not as though you said it wrong. It is as though you are trying to fight a hurricane.

Meadows: Well, there are some physical phenomena that people understand. Gravity, for instance. People have a visual, intuitive understanding of what happens when you drop something. And if you want to catch it (makes motion of dropping from one hand, catching with the other) what you have to do, and so on. Or, when you are driving a car, you have some sense about momentum. But entropy, which is what you are talking about, is sufficiently abstract that most people do not grasp….

Tverberg: But this is not just closed system entropy. This is a dissipative system. This is dealing with the world as it really is, with the sun coming in and energy going back out again. 



Mark Cochrane
Dr. Mark Cochrane: But what you are saying in terms of fossil fuels, what we are expending in terms of energy is only 1/20 of what comes from the sun every day. So we are not dissipating — we are actually accumulating.

John Michael Greer: Well, the reference to dissipative systems, as recently applied to civilizations, I mean, come on. A hurricane is a dissipative system, but it has properties like tending to maintain itself, and behaving according to its own internal dynamics, and there is not much you can do to it to disrupt that process until it runs through to its conclusion. In the same way, if I am understanding you correctly, you say a civilization is like a slow hurricane.

Tverberg: Yes.

Greer: And once it gets started, it is going to go through a certain swath of destruction until it finally peters out. There has actually been quite a lot of work along the same lines with regard to civilizations. I refer you to the work of Arnold Toynbee. I refer you to the work of Oswald Spengler. They are in fact arguing that civilizations have a predictable life cycle, as a hurricane does.

Meadows: The big point here is that these are issues that are never going to be subject to black and white proof, and which are extremely difficult, maybe even impossible, for many people to understand, never mind incorporate into a new pattern of behavior. So, that’s the world we live in. We have our perceptions, which, it seems to me, are more or less correct. And then comes the question, so what do we do about it?

Greer: I have been arguing since some time in the 1980s that we passed the point where we can make corrections. So, barring neat science fiction ideas and ad hoc arguments, where are we headed?


Dennis Meadows
Meadows: Or to put it more concretely, given that I am giving a speech tomorrow to a group of people that generally share our views, what is some useful information to convey to them? I personally have been looking forward to this opportunity because for the first time, literally the very first time, after 42 years and thousands of speeches, I don’t have to make the case that there are limits and we are past them. This crew accepts that, and they want to know what to do about it.

I think the people who are going to be there tomorrow hear about the future but a principal amount of them are wondering what they should be doing. I think Orren captured it well when he said, I used to be doing this for my grandchildren, and then I started doing it for my children and now I am doing it for the younger members of the population of the farm, but two years from now I may be looking out for myself. That is, as a principal motivation.

This place, or places like it, succeed. They are useful models and also they provide some stability and resilience to the larger system. Nonetheless, the principal motivation is, what should I do with my money?

Greer: I think you will find it is more diverse than that. There are people who are worried — oh my god how am I going to put food on the table? And there are people with a wider range of motivations. There are positions outside save myself and save the world. There are a few people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do something. There are lots of things we can do apart from personal survival to mitigate the worst. Rather than sit around and chat away merrily that we will all be dead by 2030 or surely fusion reactors will come along…

Cochrane: Thorium…

Greer: Thorium reactors! Unicorn farts. There is a herd of unicorns galloping here from Alpha Century and we will get though just as soon as we figure out how to extract twinkle dust from their flatulence and that will give us enough to power the solar system. I promise you that is about as rational as thorium reactors.

Dennis Meadows

The next morning, in the large outdoor pavilion at Four Quarters, Meadows perched on a stool and began by reiterating that he was grateful to be singing to the choir, for a change, but not at all sure where it might go. He began with a recollection of an overland trek that he and his wife, Donnella, had made from London to Sri Lanka and back in 1969-1970.

“And I still remember the amazement with which I came to know that at a certain point in the Central Valley in Afghanistan, I was standing on a piece of ground where at least 50 major civilizations had prevailed … had come and said, ‘Okay, this is it, we’re the best, we’re the last, don’t worry about what comes next because this is it,’ and then they all disappeared. That was very interesting to me.”

In 1972, the team of scientists he assembled for the original Limits to Growth study concluded::

  • If present policies are sustained, the limits to physical growth on this planet will be reached within the next 100 years.
  • The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.
  • It is possible to alter these policies and establish a condition of ecological and economic stability.
  • The sooner we start working to attain that condition, the greater is our chance of success and the more attractive will be the options available to us.

This is old news. Meadows queried the audience. “What do we do now? Here we are. We see what’s coming. What do we do? How much time do we have? What are the likely outcomes of our actions?”

Meadows asked everyone to put down their pen and paper and cross their arms. “Look down and see which wrist is on top.” He then had them unfold, and repeat the movement.

“How many of you had the same wrist on top both times?” Most.

“Everyone who had your left wrist up both times, raise your hand.”

“Everyone who had your right wrist up both times raise your hand.”

 About half and half.

“That’s normal. Crossing your arms is a habit. A habit is a pattern that you adopt subconsciously to free your conscious mind up for more important matters. And when you don’t need to use your two hands for anything, it's a habit to cross your arms to get them out of the way.

“So, cross your arms the other way” (pause while people grope to get it right, laughter).

“Okay, this illustrates three points which I think are also appropriate for this conversation we are going to have about collapse. 1. It is possible to change your behavior. You all managed to do it, by and large. 2. It does, however, take some effort and some thought to change your patterns of behavior. Expect to make mistakes. 3. It doesn’t feel as comfortable at first. A new pattern of behavior, if scrutinized, is stressful at a subliminal level.

“The things we have to do to prepare for what I will loosely term collapse have, I think, those three features. We can do them, but it isn’t going to be easy. And we absolutely should not expect to avoid mistakes. Actually you learn from your mistakes. You don’t learn from your successes.

“We shouldn’t expect that we are going to have a conversation and then everyone is going to simply head off in a new direction. That is not how it works.”




In 1972 there were two possible options provided for going forward — overshoot or sustainable development. Despite myriad conferences and commissions on sustainable development since then, the world opted for overshoot. The two-leggeds hairless apes did what they always have done. They dominated and subdued Earth. Faced with unequivocable evidence of an approaching existential threat, they equivocated and then attempted to muddle through.

Global civilization will only be the first of many casualties of the climate the Mother Nature now has coming our way at a rate of change exceeding any comparable shift in the past 3 million years, save perhaps the meteors or supervolcanoes that scattered our ancestors into barely enough breeding pairs to be able to revive. This change will be longer lived and more profound than many of those phenomena. We have fundamentally altered the nitrogen, carbon and potassium cycles of the planet. It may never go back to an ecosystem in which bipedal mammals with bicameral brains were possible. Or, not for millions of years.


Meadows says that in 1972 we had reached about 85% of Earth’s carrying capacity and today we are about 125%, and every month we delay in getting back within limits erodes Earth’s further ability to tolerate us. “The reason we don’t have a response to climate change,” he said, “is not because we don’t have better models. It’s because people don’t care about climate change.” That may be our epitaph.

In 2012, The Club of Rome released an update taking the famous 1972 study out to 2052. — 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years. Why 2052? Jorgen Randers, one of the authors, said he wanted to know what the rest of his life would be like. He’d be near 100 then. Now he knows.


  • While the process of adapting humanity to the planet's limitations has started, the human response will be too slow.
  • The current dominant global economies, particularly the United States, will stagnate. Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and ten leading emerging economies (referred to as 'BRISE' in the Report) will still progress, slowly, based upon available local resources.
  • China will be a (short term) success story, because of its ability to muster coordinated action.
  • Despite all efforts to the contrary, there will still be 3 billion global poor in 2052.
  • Global population will have peaked at 8 billion a decade earlier, in 2042. The birthrate will be marked by falling fertility in urban areas, the death rate by increasing numbers of those ill from malnutrition and without access to health care. Famines will most affect the poor — those unable to keep up with the price of food.
  • Global GDP, while not immediately reversing, will grow much more slowly than expected, because of slower productivity growth in mature economies. The new growth will be a product of population growth and desperate expenditures of labor and treasure to mitigate or adapt to climate shocks.
  • Despite never-ending high-level meetings, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will continue to grow and cause a rise in temperature of +2°C by 2052; +2.8°C in 2080, by which point climate change may have become irrevocably self-reinforcing. After that the word “limits” will have outlived its usefulness.
Meadows says he agrees with some of Randers' forecasts and disagrees with others. He thinks the “update,” which is completely unrelated to the original or later Meadows models, made some serious mistakes in its assumptions, most especially about climate change and energy. Randers seems to think the climate impact, like a lumbering elephant, will not be very important prior to 2052 but the second — peak net energy and the inability of renewables to fill the industrial gap — will be extremely important. Meadows believes  climate change is already having important impacts and that well before 2052 we will see truly calamitous consequences from it.
 

Some speakers who are less familiar with the dynamics of non-linear convecting fluid dynamics pulled out old canards that really should have been retired by now. Gail “the Actuary” Tverberg, whose views are very much in step with many in the peak oil world, said, “It could be caused by solar heating, we don’t know,” (easily debunked by solar observation data) and “there is no way we could find as much carbon to burn as the IPCC has in its scenarios” (the IPCC report runs all its scenarios against an abrupt cessation event and relatively little changes because of the built-in inertia). 

Even John Michael Greer trudged out his tired old line about “don’t you remember 30 years ago when everyone was saying we would get another ice age — maybe fast? Show of hands? See! Climate science has no credibility.” Mark Cochrane, Senior Scientist at the Geospacial Sciences Center, thankfully addressed this in his later talk by noting the difference between science-fiction writers and actual climate scientists.
 

Meadow’s talk included a chart showing the catabolic step we might expect of climate change about mid-21st century. He pointed out that whenever such large shifts in temperature occurred in Earth’s history, they were not gradual, coming in lurches, rather than smooth waves. He gave the example of a reagent being slowly added to a beaker until suddenly, saturation is reached and color or something else abruptly changes. The smooth comfort of the Hubbert bell curve is unlikely when net energy extraction or compounding climate feedbacks are considered.

It is urgent, he said, to increase the resilience of our systems. He went on to define resilience as the capacity of a system to continue providing essential functions after receiving a shock from some problem.


There are two ways to increase resilience:

  1. Change the structure of the system
  2. Define different essential functions

His final slide was a partial list of ways to alter the structure for increased resilience:

  • Raise Efficiency — spend smart, not more
  • Build Barriers — determine where your vulnerabilities lie and decouple from risks
  • Increase Redundancy – hedge your bets as best you can
  • Add Buffers — stocks that reduce urgency in times of supply crunches
  • Predict Future Shocks — knowing that you can’t predict everything


Catering to the crowd at Age of Limits
These steps can be taken at all scales and by investing in both physical and social capital. Had the presentations been in better order, this would have been a nice segue into our own talk, or Dmitry Orlov’s, which were about placing greater value on small communities, and working to build resilience as villagers, not as lone individuals or megacities. We hardly needed to make that point, however. Four Quarters villagers, laboring to supply us with freshly baked breads, gluten-free entrees, home-brewed meads in 6 different flavors and local string music late into the nights made the point for us.

Meadows went to pains to say that the World-3 model made no attempt to predict what would occur once limits were exceeded. “At that point,” he said, “we are into unprecedented things.” Indeed, we are into the realm of non-linear, infinitely variable, coupled systems, which not even the most powerful supercomputers can accurately model. Well, perhaps the Hitchhiker’s Guide, under the heading “Infinite Improbability Drive.”


References:
Meadows, D.H., Meadows, D.L., Randers, J., and Behrens, W.W., 1972, Limits to Growth (Washington: Potomac Associates)
Meadows, D.H., Randers, J., and Meadows, D.L., 2004, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update (White River Junction VT: Chelsea Green and Earthscan)
Bardi, U., 2011, The Limits to Growth Revisited (London: Springer)
Randers, et. al., 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (Club of Rome Report, 2012)
 

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