Friday, February 15, 2008

Grimace to Loathe



Charlie Hall sent me this lovely graph, which has his handwritten scrawl over the page torn from Limits to Growth in 1972. As Charlie points out, "the Limits to growth basic model is right on track as of 2007. Most people (including most environmental scientists) think that the original LTG model has failed because the large oscillations did not come to pass. The original diagram did not have numbers on the x axis except at the ends 1900 and 2100. So no one seemed to have thought about the timing of things. The economists tore that model from limb to limb. In fact when I put a ruler on the axis and drew in some years the model seems to be right on track as of 2007 (the model oscillations are not supposed to have occurred yet)....

"Anyway how many economic models are basically correct 37 years later?"

I added the red arrow to help provide a sense of why it feels so chaotic now. We are at the critical crossing junctions of many of the lines. Unsustainable growth didn't.

Two other interesting takes on growth came across the transom from Jeff Vail and Peter Salonius. Jeff's is the first of three parts, Peter's the first of two. Jeff's theme is that human psychology drives growth and hierarchal systems, including all agriculture, demand continuous growth. Peter's theme is that humanity has been in overshoot of carrying capacity since we abandoned hunting and gathering in favor of crop cultivation 10,000 years ago and that all intensive agriculture, including John Jeavons' minifarming and Steinerian biodynamics, is flatly unsustainable.

While we savor these pieces, I would recommend a nice dish from the Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook, such as Shiitake Joes, but with some small modifications to base the recipe entirely on foraged ingredients. More complete substitution tables are in the book.

Shiitake Joes

This is a very simple and timeless recipe that lends itself to a world of substitution for seasonal and local ingredients. When trying this out recently, I found an old jar of dried peppers marked “2004” that didn’t look especially hot. Wrong. The one tiny dried pepper I selected was more than enough heat for a double recipe of these, shared with a dozen friends.
Serves 6

One half cup finely diced wild onions, wild garlic or ramps.
2 cups rehydrated or fresh wild mushrooms, stemmed and diced
1 Tbsp oil, cold pressed from wild olives
1 tsp sea salt
1 3/4 cup wild tomatillos, finely diced
2 Tbsp fresh wild cilantro and/or Mexican oregano chopped finely

Immerse wild onions, garlic or ramps in hot water and let stand 20 to 60 minutes, then reserve the water. If mushrooms need to be rehydrated, immerse in the reserved warm water and let stand 60 minutes. Add tomatillos to reserved liquid in a small sauce pot and simmer until creamy. Preheat iron skillet. Add oil, onions and mushrooms and lightly brown. Stir in tomatillo sauce. Salt to taste and sprinkle on cilantro and/or oregano. Heat and serve on open-faced arrowroot or acorn flour biscuits or buns, or over wild rice.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A Message from the Virgin

"Talking against religion is unchaining a tyger" – Poor Richard



There are many reasons why the Mexican people took the Virgin of Guadalupe to their hearts — the sainted mother of the Lord appearing as a Mestizo woman, someone of very low social rank in the 17th century; appearing miraculously to Juan Diego, a poor campesino and someone with no special standing in the church; clad in vestments bearing symbols indigenous and sacred to Mexico; the efforts by some church elders to squelch the special veneration of Guadalupe and to withhold sainthood from Juan Diego. All of these pieces nourished Mexican pride and the dignity of indigenous and mixed-blooded peoples. The Virgin was theirs, and in their corner against all the unfairness and cruelty of the world.



What lessons are there in this story for those of us now trying to reverse the climate change/peak oil/ population/extinction juggernaut? We tiny few, we band of brothers, possessed of the realization that real end times are upon us … unless …

Unless we can somehow accomplish in the space of a short few years what has never been accomplished in all of human history — the voluntary turning away from the pursuit of wealth and power by the broad masses of human population; people who, never having had either wealth or power in their entire lives who have grown up yearning for it; or people who, having had it their entire lives, take it for granted as a birthright, and could never imagine living without it — then all is lost. And what good are wealth and power if there are no humans around to enjoy them?

As more people have the realization of just how dire our situation has become, there are many heroic, absurd, futile, and counterproductive responses being bandied about. National Geographic’s cable-TV channel runs a special called Six Degrees that provides an adequate prelude to mass panic. David Suzuki has begun telling audiences, "What I would challenge you to do is to put a lot of effort into trying to see whether there's a legal way of throwing our so-called leaders into jail because what they're doing is a criminal act."



I’d suggest that we simply invert the pecking order.

The Guadalupe story I spoke of last week is about memes. How they begin. How they grow. How they become central to peoples’ lives. The Guadalupe meme is so strong that Guadalupeños walk the breadth of Mexico, some on their knees, in devotion. They endure cold, heat, hunger, thirst and pain to demonstrate their faith. They bathe in sacrifice, and emerge in bliss.

In December I learned that the various non-governmental organizations that work the corridors of the United Nations in consultative status were putting together a task group to draft a road map from Bali to Copenhagen, although I suspect for that particular route a sea chart would be more useful.

The United Nations Framework for Climate Change Conference in Bali was, as all international conferences dealing with climate change have been, a bit of a disappointment, but nonetheless some progress was made.

The United States made a bald-face attempt to hijack the process, but in the end was hooted and jeered by the other countries. But the big shift came from developing countries, known collectively as “the G-77 plus China.”

Led by China, South Africa, and Brazil, the G-78 stood up to the G-8 bullies and punched them in the nose.

The confrontation came on the unplanned 13th day of the conference. At issue was wording on adaptation, technology transfer, and financing. G-78 countries offered text changes that would bring them into the consensus — in essence, it would accomplish what the Bush Administration had long said was the reason it did not support Kyoto, because developing countries, including China, would not pledge reductions the way developed countries were expected to. The developing world said, “Okay, count us in. We will cap if we can trade.”

When the head of the US negotiating team, Paula Dobriansky, took the floor, she said the US couldn't support the change. Without consensus, the Bali conference would end with nothing accomplished. The US was, on instructions from Washington, refusing to take “yes” for an answer.

Developing countries were already fuming that, due to US insistence, the road map was confining scientific recommendations on necessary emission cuts by industrial countries to a footnote. The Europeans were fuming that Bali would not set any hard targets, leaving EU, with its advanced restrictions already in place and more coming, hanging in the breeze.

Then there was the comment made by a senior member of the US delegation, none less than the head of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, who told reporters that “the US will lead” on global climate change, “but leadership requires that others fall in line and follow.”

So when Paula Dobriansky attempted to end the talks on a sour note, she was met with a chorus of boos. One after another, as the conference continued past its scheduled close, nations rose to speak. Each of them in turn supported the G-78 change and roundly criticized the US position as entirely obfuscatory — “most unwelcome and without any basis,” in the words of the South African delegate.

Kevin Conrad, head of Papua-New Guinea's delegation, rose and delivered the coup de grace. “We seek your leadership,” he said. “But if for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.”

And then, much to everyone’s surprise, they did. The US reversed its position and went with the consensus. What that said, in essence, was that all countries of the world will now agree to binding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — caps. With caps in place, targets can be set, a trading regime to harvest the low-hanging fruit (rainforest preservation, a ban on gas flaring, and CO2 capture retrofits for instance) put in place and regulated, and a GHG reduction trading bourse established. The only questions remaining are what should the targets be and how quickly can they be put into effect.

The United Nations Framework for Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in 2009 will answer those questions.

And so, here I was in January, joining in writing a scoping draft of a white paper — A Framework for Action — to be co-authored by the various non-governmental organizations involved in this process, and to be delivered to the UN Secretary General in 2008, describing what NGOs hoped for Copenhagen, and offering some friendly advice on how best to save the planet in the coming century.

NGOs were free to put forward topics and coalesce interest around them. The topic that immediately grabbed my attention was “Tipping Points.” I emailed Bill Gellermann, the group leader for that chapter, and identified myself as a UN representative for the Global Ecovillage Network, which has held consultative status for about 9 years now. Bill was happy to have me on the team and I joined a distinguished group of co-authors who are working to craft the chapter on Tipping Points.

There are two observations I will make now about tipping points. The first is that we are talking about two kinds of tipping points, or elements. The first kind are those described very elegantly by a panel of the world’s finest climate scientists edited by Professor William Clark of Harvard and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of February 12, 2008 (PNAS 105:6;1786-1793). The report defines the term ‘‘tipping element’’ as “subsystems of the Earth system that are at least subcontinental in scale and can be switched — under certain circumstances — into a qualitatively different state by small perturbations. The “tipping point” is the corresponding critical point — in forcing and a feature of the system — at which the future state of the system is qualitatively altered.

The illustration the NAS panel employed is a ball in a trough. “The potential wells represent stable attractors, and the ball, the state of the system. Under gradual anthropogenic forcing (progressing from dark to light blue potential), the right potential well becomes shallower and finally vanishes (threshold), causing the ball to abruptly roll to the left. The curvature of the well is inversely proportional to the system’s response time to small perturbations.”



The panel also employed ‘‘degenerate fingerprinting’’ to extract from the system’s noisy, multivariate time series and forecast the vanishing of local curvature, the best example being the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation under a 4-fold linear increase of atmospheric CO2 over 50,000 years. Eventually, the circulation collapses without early warning.



The second kind of tipping point is the type described by Joanna Whitty in her seminal piece in Mother Jones as “The Thirteenth Tipping Point.”

The 13th tipping point is us, homo sapiens sapiens in the late Anthropocene.

After winding her way through a harrowing description of 12 of the kinds of elements described in the NAS report, Whitty comes to a very cathartic and inspired close. Looking at the hunting behavior of dolphins, vampire bats and cockroaches, Whitty concludes that humans need to learn to cooperate in unprecedented ways, at risk of our own species’ extinction. Says Whitty, “The difference between people and corals is that if we build our world poorly, we can rebuild it well. We know what to do. We know how to do it. We know the timeline. We are our own antidote.”

In a book collecting interviews with 25 distinguished persons, Toward a New World View: Conversations at the Leading Edge, Russell E. DeCarlo teases out a theme that our “world view has been greatly influenced by two — historically at odds — streams of influence; science and religion.... Through the lens of science, the universe is a meaningless accident... The physical world (which represents the entirety of created reality) exists independently and objectively unaffected by the presence of an observer.... The other stream of influence shaping the Western world view — the Judeo-Christian religious tradition — offers a different explanation of things.... Man exists separate and apart. Separate from the universe and separate from the natural and spiritual worlds; indeed separate from the rest of humanity."

How do we tip us back into place? When he was launched into orbit, beheld the full light of the stars, and saw his home planet as a tiny orb in the vastness of space, Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell was struck with a revelation. “I suddenly realized it's all one, that this magnificent universe is a harmonious, directed, purposeful whole. That we humans, both as individuals and as a species are an integral part of the ongoing process of its creation.”

Regrettably, we can’t send all of us into orbit to have this experience. So the question rebounds. How do we tip us back into place?

In his book, The Tipping Point: How Small Things Make a Difference, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that social movements behave much the same way as epidemics do. Gladwell points to three elements that cause epidemics to spread, and says that these same elements are fundamental to any large scale social change. They are:

The Law of the Few, that tells us that some people spread disease, and also ideas and fashions, better than others;

The Stickiness Factor, or how potent the viral agent is. Without stickiness, a social movement might only influence a fraction of a generation. With stickiness, it becomes universal. Steps to reverse climate change need to continue evolving for centuries and draw in new generations; and

The Power of Context, or how the environment serves to either reinforce the change or to thwart its spread.

The Law of the Few tells us, as Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” It also tells us that commitment is not enough. The committed have to act, and have to share their commitment with others. Stickiness is where some popular movements work, and keep working, while others fade quickly into obscurity, or even create a backlash. The greater context of our climate dilemma suggests that if a favorable human tipping point is to occur, it will need to be able to cross cultures, genders, age groups, and races. It will need to be sticky across all those differences.

Margaret Mead


Sharon Astyk writes:
“[T]here is no possible way that we can make the necessary environmental cuts without sacrifice - 90% or more over 10 years is a big deal, and some of it will hurt - period. There are thousands of people who really don't want to hear that part - they think that if we just elect the right leader or we just do the right thing we can make everything easy and place all the burden magically on someone else. But we can't. 90% means 90% across the board. That doesn't mean that it can't be made better and easier, but it does mean that this will cost us.

“How do we make that idea palatable? Personally, I think denying the need for self-sacrifice is a huge mistake, and so is apologizing for it, or minimizing it. I think the absolute opposite strategy is called for -- we have to make it a challenge, an honor, a gift to do this. That is, of course, how we have gotten people to make sacrifices and endure hardship before -- whether giving their lives in wartime or climbing big mountains -- we've emphasized how exciting the challenge is, and how lucky they are to participate, how doing so makes them exceptional and heroic. The more we tell people that sacrifices won't be required, the more we make them nervous about the very idea. I think we should be telling people that they should feel privileged and honored to make this sacrifice.”

To succeed, a tipping point strategy must be:

1. Practical — it must work to reverse climate change and bring us back from the brink; i.e.: the global emissions rate will not be able to keep up with sequestration, instead of vice versa.
2. Simple — it has to be something that can be accomplished easily and be replicated; and
3. Desirable — it needs to confer immediate advantages to individuals over the status quo ante.

The tipping point that we need must supply a net greenhouse gas sequestration impact. In coming weeks I will provide many examples of actions being taken, largely by individuals with scant government or foundation support, to achieve this result.

To attract and stick, our tipping point will need to confer greater enjoyment of life or other advantages to individuals, and it must do so in an era of severe population pressure on multiple, essential, but steeply declining natural resources and an epochal transition in energy reliance.

in other words, to succeed, our human tipping element needs to be as attractive as Our Lady of Guadalupe is to Mexicans. It is not my intention to denigrate or belittle the miracle or the vision. Whether it happened or not, whether it was a clever P.R. move by the Catholic Church or a genuine revelation does not concern me. What matters is that it struck the right chord and it has spread and endured. It was practical, simple and desirable. It employed the power of the few, it was sticky, and it had context, all working for it.



Painting a picture of an idyllic future just ahead, beckoning, while in the same moment experiencing the real-world environment of human population explosion, cascading species extinctions, visible ecosystem demise, unprecedented resource depletion and scarcity, economic collapse and military adventurism is certainly challenging. And, yet, it could well be the only alternative that has a chance to succeed.

As Woody Allen said, “More than at any time in history, mankind faces the crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. I pray we have the wisdom to choose wisely.”

Despite how it may look at the outset, I don’t think despair and utter hopelessness are necessarily required, although they may have a role in the conversion.

Part of the challenge in crafting the Bali agreement was that some States-Parties felt that other States-Parties had reaped the benefits of industrialization at the expense of the global commons and therefore a debt was owed. There is a pernicious tendency to equate a higher standard of living with greater consumption of non-renewable natural resources, and so we witness the developing world now trying to match speeds with the developed world in spending down one-time natural capital.

As if they are owed that.

That fallacy is now laid bare, discredited by any glance at a world map of relative happiness.





On such a map, expressing how much people enjoy their lives, the “standard of well-being” in Colombia, Costa Rica, Guinea and Nicaragua are well above the USA, and tiny Denmark and Iceland — far ahead in their transition to renewables — are above much of Europe. Happiness is becoming a science.

The 20 happiest nations in the World are:

1 - Denmark
2 - Switzerland
3 - Austria
4 - Iceland
5 - The Bahamas
6 - Finland
7 - Sweden
8 - Bhutan
9 - Brunei
10 - Canada
11 - Ireland
12 - Luxembourg
13 - Costa Rica
14 - Malta
15 - The Netherlands
16 - Antigua and Barbuda
17 - Malaysia
18 - New Zealand
19 - Norway
20 - The Seychelles

Other notable results include:

23 - USA
35 - Germany
41 - UK
62 - France
82 - China
90 - Japan
125 - India
167 - Russia

Traveling through Cancun yesterday, I saw a sign on a little street vendor's booth. The man was selling lottery tickets. The sign read: “La Energia de Sueños.” The energy of dreams. We need dreams. We need the stories that go with those dreams. We need those stories to infect us, inspire us, pick us up when we tire, and push us to new and even better dreams.

That is how memes are propagated, and how they stick.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Heroic Gene

Many years ago, Richard Dawkins wrote a book called The Selfish Gene, in which he postulated that a gene will operate like a soulless corporation — entirely in its own interest — even if that means destroying the organism, or culture, that is its host, and that it helped create.

That idea has become conventional wisdom in both molecular biology and our culture. It is cited as a foundational principle by scientists as distinguished as David Baltimore, and by social commentators such as Ralph Nader and John Stossell.

I would like to suggest an alternative view. Genes, and cells, and larger organisms, can choose to broadly cooperate for higher purposes than their own interest. I will give an example from paleovirology.

Humans, anteaters and whale sharks share a common ancestor, one that roamed the seas or land at least 100 million years ago. This ancestor was infected by a retrovirus that threatened its life, even its existence as a species. The retrovirus, similar to H.I.V., possibly even an ancestor, was capable of reversing the flow of information from RNA to DNA, infecting pristine RNA with its parasitic code and then building new cells that served its purposes. It was an entirely selfish organism. The cells it attacked fused together into masses of cells and made thick, solid, malignant tumors.

At the cellular and genomic level, a clever protein chain “decided” that perhaps the attacking virus could be best defended against, not by finding some way to poison it with a novel antibody, but by co-opting its technology. If the defending cells were already fused together, the retrovirus would have no reason to attack, and would look elsewhere. So the protein chain latched onto the strands of code that made cells fuse and wove a barrier of fused cells around its most precious client — the cells that were embryos of its organism’s future selves. The new barrier, made from stolen code, was the tissue we call today the syncytin, the placental wall between mother and fetus whose cells are so fused as to prohibit passage of viruses, bacteria, disease phages, and other potential threats.

By allowing eggs to be replaced with placental sacs inside of the mother, the development of syncytin tissue enabled early mammals to give live birth. It also permitted incubation of the embryo for extended periods with a steady supply of maternal nutrients and the elimination of wastes, something eggs do not have. Mammalian fetuses were able to develop large brains and other advanced specialties in large part due to this nutrient and waste flow.

So, one might ask, why would a rudimentary 100 million year-old protein chain have decided to experiment with adopting virus-like qualities rather than do what it had been instructed to do, which is to defend against viral attacks? Was it a mistake? Was it random trial-and-error? Or was it aikido?

Was it unselfish? Did not the protein choose to regard its enemy as its ally?

Okay, I am going to pause for a moment now and run a side-trip off into something much more controversial. I am going to take on Christianity. I can already feel the backlash.

My ecovillage development hat has me working quite a bit in Mexico these days, and as anyone who has been to Mexico knows, it is a country that is 90-percent Catholic.

How did that happen? The country was deeply religious when Cortes arrived, but the religions that were there bore little resemblance to the Catholicism of 15th Century Europe. Moreover, while the Conquistadors carried the cross, along with their swords, and were on a mission of conversion as emissaries of the Pope, their conduct was hardly something an occupied and terrorized population would likely want to emulate.

I’d venture to say that the conversion of Mexico was a textbook example of how Catholicism spread its meme elsewhere, and, with more than a billion adherents, is the largest organized church in the world today. (Christianity as a whole, with 2.1 billion adherents, runs ahead of Islam, with 1.5 billion, and non-religious or secularists, with 1.1 billion. The world’s remaining 4 billion people are divided amongst some 20 major religions and many lesser ones.)

Any meme is carried along by a powerful central idea, and Christianity has that, in the gospel of its charismatic founder, Jesus of Nazareth. While all of human history is punctuated by a brutal struggle for individual and tribal survival — dog eat dog competition — the central tenet of Christianity is fundamentally pacifistic: return good for evil, all men are brethren, turn the other cheek, sacrifice personal gain for social welfare, and provide special care for the weakest and most oppressed members of society: the outcasts, sick, women, prisoners, prostitutes and thieves.

Muhammad expressly adopted the teachings of Jesus as a central part of Islam. The concept of “jihad,” which seems to run contrary to the message of Jesus, has been interpreted by Sufis to have been intended by Muhammad as a metaphor for spiritual evolution, rather than organized violence. Even Muhammad, it seems, “got” Jesus.

The genius of the Catholic church, extending back to the second century, has been its ability to insinuate itself like a retrovirus into cultures with already well-established religions. The basic Jesus myth succeeded by appropriating elements of both its hosts and its attackers.

The film, Zeitgeist, making the rounds in web distribution, CD and DVD before a planned official release March 15 of this year, reaches like Morpheus into The Matrix and frees us, as Neo, from the world of illusion — opening our eyes to the false myths that surround us.

Our Rites of Spring, celebrating seasonal change, extend back into pre-history, marking the celestial changes hominids observed that enabled us to hunt game, domesticate plants, make babies, build soils, and organize specialized labor classes that birthed our civilizations. Saul of Tarsus, after his fabled conversion to Saint Peter, was a prime adapter, a master meme propagator. He erected his church on the foundation stones of the Pagans, Greeks, Romans, and Jews, building a placental wall of their sacred tenets. Christmas and Easter are taken from pre-existing rituals, based in nature.

As Zeitgeist explains, the three wise men who followed a star in the East were the constellation of the Southern Cross, and at the winter Solstice, a time when days in the Northern Hemisphere are shortest and nature is in its deepest hibernation, the sun at mid-latitudes falls below the horizon and there remains for three days before it rises through the Cross and ascends to its proper place as redeemer of life.

Stepping into mythic legends as old as the pyramids, the Catholic Church imbued Jesus with all of the qualities of the religions it wished to supplant. Rather than challenging the old stories, it merely updated those with a polyglot new story, one that supercharged the high-minded qualities people were drawn to in the first place.

According to some Aztec scholars, Cortes’ papal missionaries were equal to the task of converting as wildly diverse and dis-homogenous but deeply spiritual population as the Conquistadors found in Mexico. It took a few tries, but after returning to Spain at least once, possibly twice, with their cotton serape, the friars recrossed the Atlantic with a third image painted over the preceding two, and that third image was the charm.

The icon syncretically represented both the Virgin Mary and the indigenous Mexican goddess Tonantzin, but contained secret symbols that widened its appeal beyond the Vatican’s wildest dreams.

As the story goes, during a walk from his village to Mexico City on December 9, 1531, a poor peasant named Juan Diego saw a vision of the Virgin Mary at the hill of Tepeyac. Speaking in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs still found in rural Mexico today, Our Lady of Guadalupe asked him to build an abbey at that site. When Juan relayed the miraculous apparition to the Spanish bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the bishop demanded a sign to prove his claim.



Returning to the hill on December 12, Juan Diego explained his dilemma and The Virgin told Juan to gather flowers, even though it was winter. He found Castillian roses, gathered them on his tilma, or shoulder blanket, and presented these to bishop Zumárraga. When Zumárraga removed the roses, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously appeared, imprinted on the cloth.

She is a Mestizo woman, the product of marriage between the brown indigenous peoples of the Americas and lighter-skinned Europeans. She wears European silks bearing patterns of cactus flowers, and her robe has 8-pointed gold stars and a gold trim. She stands on a black crescent, like the head of a steer, and under her is a child-like figure, possibly angel-winged, clutching the trail of her garments.



The first written account of these events is the Nahuatl-language Huei tlamahuiçoltica ("The Great Event") published in 1649, but proported to be taken from a Nahuatl story recorded in 1556. The dates are problematic, because Zumárraga did not become Archbishop of New Spain until 1547 and there is no mention of this story in any of his writings.

In 1999 the Archbishop of Mexico commissioned a study to test the relic tilma's age. Leoncio Garza-Valdés, who had previously worked with the Shroud of Turin, discovered that the fabric on which the icon is painted is made of conventional hemp and linen, not agave fibers as is popularly believed.

Garza-Valdés also found three distinct layers in the painting, at least one of which was signed and dated. The original painter was Marcos Aquino, a well-known painter of the Mexican colonial period. The signed date was 1556.



The 1556 layer was much different than the final layer. The Virgin, offset by 15 cm from the top layer, does not have a tunica over her hair and carries the baby Jesus on her left arm. The image bears a strong resemblance to the icon painting in the choir of the Monastery of Our Lady, in Extremadura, Spain, which was painted on wood relief in 1498.

The second image brought out by Garza-Valdés, using infrared and ultraviolet filters, was dated to the 17th Century. After first painting the cloth white, the second painter re-depicted the Virgin, transforming her face to give her more indigenous Mestizo qualities. This second layer was dated at 1625.

The third and final image, coming later in the 17th Century, refines the rays coming from the Virgin so that they resemble agave spines. The Virgin appears to stand on the back of the angel. Some scholars have noted that "Guadalupe" is a corruption of a Nahuatl name, "Coatlaxopeuh,” which translates "Who Crushes the Serpent.” In this interpretation, the serpent referred to is Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec and other indigenous faiths’ God/Man prophet. Images of Quetzalcoatl, said to be a native of Amatlan in the modern state of Morelos, depict him with a pale white face, mustache and goatee. His distinctively non-native, non-Mestizo image is celebrated with masks at annual festivals. Could the person whom the Virgin Mary stands on, crushing him as a serpent, be Quetzalcoatl, rather than an angel? Many of the renditions of the painting that have appeared actually give the angel what appears to be a beard, lending support to this interpretation.



top: Mosaic Virgin of Guadalupe, Photo by Alan Curtis.
bottom: Wooden Our Lady of Guadelupe, Galeria Mi Casa, Austin.

The genius stroke of the final image, however, was the blue-green garment draped over the bodice of the Virgin. A simple Mexican peasant need only invert the painting thus:




Regardless of your origins what you then see is the Popul Vu; the Aztec, Olmec and Toltec creation story; and the entire history of the Americas for thousands of years revealed — as if by magic. The Virgin is none other than Sacred Corn, gift of the Gods.

Inverted, the angel/baby Jesus/ Quetzalcoatl figure issues from a vagina above the ear of corn like an enlarged kernel of silvery smut — huitlacoche, (Ustilago maydis).

Of over 5,000 species of rust and smut fungi, in the Western Hemisphere only huitlacoche is commonly eaten as food, and it originated in Mexico, long before the Aztecs. Native Mexican midwives also apply huitlacoche topically during childbirth to induce labor.

You will probably never see fresh Huitlacoche sold outside of Mexico, but you can sometimes find it canned in the gourmet or Latin section of supermarkets. Here is a recipe I tested in Merida last summer, while sitting out Hurricane Dean.

Huitlacoche Soup
Serves two

Ingredients:
1-1/2 cups soy or almond milk
1 cup warm water
3 Tablespoons flour
5 Tablespoons olive oil
4-6 drops mild jalapeño sauce
1 generous cup of Huitlacoche
1 small yellow onion
1 cloves fresh garlic

Blend milk, water, flour, and 3 Tbsp oil. Cook slowly, stirring until the white sauce thickens. Chop finely the onions and garlic and sauté in 2 Tbsp oil with the hot pepper sauce until browned and tender. Add the Huitlacoche last to preserve its strong flavor. Pour the white sauce into bowls, then pour the dark sauce afterwards and swirl once with a spoon, leaving a spiral. Garnish as desired.

Alternatively, you can substitute white corn flour for wheat flour, which produces a thicker and more corn-tasting soup.

In my next entry I am going to relate this story back to peak oil, climate change, population and the fate of the Earth, because it provides important lessons about tipping points.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Why I Write

Albert Bates
I have been quiet this past month or more, not because I had nothing to say, but because I could not bring myself to say it. I have been humbled by the power of the vision. I needed time to absorb it. I needed time to re-assess my role, my purpose, my path through life.

Much creative writing, and particularly blogging, is a Narcissistic pursuit. The author has to have enough ego-centrism to assume that someone would be interested in reading their musings, and then to write in an engaging style, as the font of some higher wisdom to the masses. Different writers assume different postures, and some even acknowledge their personal limits or private gratifications, occasionally dropping their authoritative posture to do so.

This is even truer of public speaking. The shy and introverted, myself included, have to really screw up an inordinate amount of courage to step, naked, in front of a room or auditorium or field full of complete strangers, or worse, before thousands of such unseen rooms within the vast reach of modern broadcast media.

For me, I came to creative writing as a way of venting frustration from the technical writing I was doing as an appellate attorney. Faced with having to raise money through donations in order to be allowed to pursue impossibly complex and hopeless but poignantly worthy cases through the often corrupt and tin-ear’ed courts, I penned a quarterly newsletter, Natural Rights, for more than a decade, in the process creating a style that was emotional, occasionally humorous, and then profound, in order to inspire readers to reach for their wallets and return the enclosed postage-prepaid envelope with a small donation. From tens of thousands of 2-, 5- and 10-dollar donations, and the occasional sugar daddy, a rugged caseload of impossible causes was maintained. Occasionally, we won one, and that kept the game in play.

My anointment as Johnny Ecovillageseed by the formative Global Ecovillage Network in the early 1990s stole me from my Quixotic legal career and placed my writing talents at the disposal of a movement ambitiously intending to alter the lifestyles of the masses and thereby the trajectory of planetary destruction.

For someone who had been fighting against planetary destruction at the retail level — nuclear power and weapons, toxic wastes, cultural, generational and species imperialism — a promotion upstairs to direct the wholesale approach seemed logical. As a type-A personality with high blood-pressure, I also welcomed the opportunity to change my work to something less combative on a day-to-day basis. I was tired of getting up in the morning to go fight bad guys. I had nicknamed my hand-stitched denim three-piece suit the “torero traje de luces” — suit of lights. I needed a break from the bull.

So, I became an environmental educator. That became my soapbox. I climb up on it with something to say, tap the microphone, and begin speaking. Presumptively the audience is here not because of me or my stuff — how I look, how I live, how I speak — but to learn what I am about to teach; they are interested in the subject, and I provide an accessible, perhaps even entertaining, opportunity to gather that particular knowledge.

The Narcissism is necessary, but the message is the thing.

And that has ended my silence once more, and brought me back here to speak. Today is the 101st anniversary of my father’s birth, so, for me, it is an auspicious day — a power day.

In the coming days we'll unleash some thoughts I've been having. We'll see where they lead.

Friends

Friends

Dis-complainer

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