Monday, October 27, 2008

The Emperor's New S.U.V - The Original Essay, 1999

Many people are in denial regarding their social and environmental responsibility.
Mitchell Thomashow, 1995

Once upon a time, there was a great kingdom in the north. It was the wealthiest, most powerful realm in all the land, and it's citizens enjoyed a standard of living higher than that of any other. Their wealth was largely based on the riches of their land which they believed would last forever. Even as forests disappeared around them, and soil washed into the sea, they accelerated their use of resources. Even as the air grew thick and gray, and rivers caught fire, they failed to see the costs of their wealth. Even as the animals they claimed to respect disappeared beneath the weight of luxury, they maintained an "inability to question economic growth, the distribution of wealth, capital mobility, population growth, and the scale and purposes of technology" (Orr, 1994, p. 71).
"The intense pressure of imagery" in this strange kingdom caused land to "be treated like a commodity; and voices that tend to contradict the proffered image" to be "silenced or discredited by those in power" (Lopez, 1992, p.124 125). Although some subjects, and even cabinet members, harbored deep questions, all were afraid to raise them. And so it was that the kingdom became "defined according to dictates of Progress" (Lopez, 1992, p.125), and those subjects deemed worthy enjoyed a "binge... fueled by fantasies of power, wealth, and mobility" (Orr, 1994, p. 202).
Yet despite all the power, wealth, and mobility, the people were not happy. They felt empty and alone, but refused to say anything out loud for fear of reprisal. After all, "Neither the trustees nor the administration... seems to believe that a crisis is coming" (Perrin in Orr, 1994, p.126). And so it was that a "belief in perpetual growth and the rationality of self interest over community interests" (Orr, 1994, p. 183) worked against any significant long term protection of the land.
Even as the rains came during the dry season and drought plagued the wet season, it remained "an article of faith... that technology" would rescue them "from all sorts of ecological malfeasance and hubris" (Orr, 1994, p. 179). And so it was that this "the problem of denial" (Orr, 1994, p. 145) resulted in the insidious practice of "discounting the future" (Orr, 1994, p.84).
One day while the king and his court were parading down the streets of gold plate in their shiny new sport utility vehicles, a small boy spoke the words so many others were afraid to say. "This insane human adventure, called the technological society, needs to take pause, become wiser, and reconsider its direction" (Collin, 1992, p.81).
It was a small voice among the large crowd, but those around him heard well enough to add their voices.
"A society's conceptual relationship to nature is at the core of its culture: it is a relationship that underlies what we believe and how we live" (Sauer, 1992, p. 1).
"The end of an era of cheap energy is a fundamental economic turning point" (Orr, 1994, p. 187).
"Why then do we find it so difficult to do what is merely obvious and necessary?" (Orr, 1994, p. 70).
As the procession ground to a sudden halt, the crowd grew silent. The king stepped out of his immaculate S.U.V. and walked slowly toward the boy. The sound of his alligator shoes against the gold plated bricks filled the hushed street. He stood over the boy and stared for a moment before speaking. "What is this you speak, boy?"
"I speak the truth."
"The truth? You speak the truth?"
"Yes, I speak the truth that must be told."
"Enlighten me, boy."
"But the truth that must be told cannot be spoken only or even primarily in the language and with the numbers of economics alone" (Orr, 1994, p. 173).
"Teach me."
"To teach 'is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced' (Palmer, 1998, p. 90). Yet, the education provided by your royal academies, 'has lacked the courage to ask itself what kind of world its graduates will inherit and what kind of world they will be prepared to build' (Orr, 1994, p.129)."
The king was silent for a long time while he took in the young man's words. All eyes were anxiously upon him as his blind faith was exposed to the world. His soul lay naked before the crowd. Finally he spoke. "Among all of my subjects, why is it that only you, a young boy, has the courage to speak such words?"
"Please sir, do not consider me a subject. I am more than that. I am a citizen as all of us should be." He turned to address the crowd. "The ecologically aware citizen takes responsibility for the place where he or she lives, understands the importance of making collective decisions regarding the commons, seeks to contribute to the common good, identifies with bioregions and ecosystems rather than obsolete nation states or transnational corporations, considers the wider impact of his or her actions, is committed to mutual and collaborative community building, observes the flow of power in controversial issues, attends to the quality of interpersonal relationships in political discourse, and acts according to his or her convictions" (Thomashow, 1995, p. 139).
When the boy had finished, the crowd again fell silent. Eyes shifted from the king, to the boy, and back to the king. In a moment that no one will ever forget, his royal majesty slipped the fingers of his right hand around the gold band that clung to his left wrist. With his thumb, he peeled back the gold clasp and freed the time piece. Slowly and deliberately, he raised the Rolex above his head so that everyone would know what was to follow. He held it a arms length, flipping it back and forth between his thumb and forefinger until he was satisfied that even those in the back of the crowd would understand immediately.
Suddenly, and with more passion than he had shown in a lifetime, the king hurled the watch to the ground and stomped it beneath his foot. A great cheer rose to the rooftops as the boy was hoisted high on shoulders and carried through the town.
The spell was broken! The people were free! And they all lived sustainably ever after (Anderson, 1995).


Anderson, H. C. (1995). The Emperor's New Clothes (E. Haugaard, Trans.). New
York: Penguin Books. (Original translation copyright 1974)
Collin, G. (1992). In P. Sauer (Ed.), Finding Home: Writing on Nature and Culture
from Orion Magazine. (p. 81). Boston: Beacon Press.
Lopez, B. (1992). The American Geographies. In P. Sauer (Ed.), Finding Home:
Writing on Nature and Culture from Orion Magazine. (pp. 116 134). Boston:
Beacon Press.
Orr, D.W. (1994). Earth in Mind: On Education, Environment, and the Human
Prospect. Washington, DC: Island Press. Palmer, P. (1998). The Courage To Teach. San Francisco: Josey Bass. Sauer, P. (Ed.), (1992). Finding Home: Writing on Nature and Culture from Orion
Magazine. Boston: Beacon Press.
Thomashow, M. (1995). Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective
Environmentalist. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Power of One

The Power of One

We were born onto this beautiful spinning blue ball one day. We will die one day. In between we live this life one day at a time.

But somehow the numbers get complicated:
Six point six billion humans on the planet. (And growing.)
Nine point four trillion dollars in U.S. national debt. (And growing.)
Three ninety-three per gallon. (And growing.)
Three hundred eighty-seven parts per million. (And growing.)

When numbers gets complicated I try to keep it simple. What can I do as one person? What can I do this one day?

I plant seeds. It is both my vocation and avocation. I plant seeds one at a time. One may germinate. One may not. I plant another.

Lettuce seeds, like new ideas, are very small. They seem almost to disappear in my palm as I pour them out of the crisp, clean packet that came in the mail. I plant them in rows, but have a special affinity for those individuals that germinate outside the rows. Maybe I dropped one by accident. Maybe it’s a volunteer from last year’s lettuce that bolted and went to seed during the hottest days of August. Either way I cannot bring myself to take the hoe to it even if it grows boldly in the middle of a path.

This head of lettuce, like a good idea, grows rapidly and flourishes even where it seems not to belong – especially where it seems not to belong. But not all is what it seems.

Seeming is in the eye of the beholder. “Perspective prejudices perception,” claims farmer Elliot Coleman. He sows seed too. And then over winters the plants in unheated greenhouses on the coast of Maine. This thriving business started as a small idea one day.

And so that one seed, that one lettuce seedling, that one gorgeous head of lettuce is sitting there in the middle of my garden path. And sometimes it’s a pain in the ass. I have to step over it, walk around it. That renegade breaks up the symmetry of the garden. But it is that one flaw - the spirit line - that makes everything else possible. It is humility and respect. It is hope. It is worth stepping over and walking around. It is worth hand pulling the weeds along its flanks. It is worth kneeling beside on that one day on which it will be harvested, washed and eaten. It is a celebration. It is a victory, for every head of lettuce not shipped from California is a victory. It is the power of one.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Episode 6: Being Good

Episode 6: Being Good
(Written on the grid)

When it comes to good design, few come close to permaculture. It is difficult to identify many human design strategies from the last century that result in healed landscapes, increased fertility, and enhanced biodiversity.

Since the early days of permaculture in the 1970s, the design theory – often called regenerative design – has evolved to address more than just agricultural applications. Modern permaculture is seen as a philosophy and lifestyle ethic as much as it is a system design tool. Indeed, the design principles are broad enough to apply to many of our cultural systems. When used as a prism for design, permaculture: looks at whole systems; seeks connections between key components; observes how the components relate to one another; and proposes to mend weak systems by applying techniques that have proven effective in healthy, sustainable systems.

Regenerative design, at its best, results in landscapes that are healthier and more productive, and buildings that produce more energy than they consume. What then, would a regenerative education system look like?

Regenerative design principles can be integrated into a comprehensive secondary science and technology education. Instead of producing consumers who expand their ecological footprints with every higher level of education gained, schools can graduate citizens who become active in repairing the damage humanity has done to Earth’s life support systems. Education can be ecologically fecund instead of destructive. The next generation can be trained to have the knowledge, skills and motivation to create abundant cultural systems that increase fertility and biodiversity. It is possible to educate a generation of human beings that will have a healing – regenerative - presence on the planet, but how can schools model this here and now?

Putting regenerative design principles at the heart of the curriculum is a good place to start.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Episode 5: Why Sustainability Is Not Enough

Episode 5: Why Sustainability Is Not Enough
(Written on the grid)

Once certain words become adopted by the federal government and large corporations, we know it is time to seek new ground. “Organic” is, perhaps, the most recent and certainly the biggest example. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma does a great job of demonstrating that industrial organic is more industrial than organic, but most Whole Food shoppers fail to recognize this. By the time mainstream America began embracing organic macaroni and cheese real organic farmers were dropping the “organic” label not necessarily because of the cost of certification, but because of the paperwork required and the complete lack of spirit retained by the word once the EPA got involved. Substituting inputs – organic fertilizers and pesticides for chemical fertilizers and pesticides – is the narrowest interpretation of organic that one could demise. It limits “organic” to only that which relates to the chemicals themselves and ignores much of what the grassroots organic movement was/is about: building long term soil fertility, enhancing biodiversity, shortening supply lines, etc.

In much the same way, “sustainability” has become more narrowly defined by some as little more than input substitution. Few Americans realize that Hydrogen is not an energy source but a storage mechanism, much like a battery. Ethanol may be a domestic product, but some say its carbon footprint is bigger than the carbon it contains. In other words, it is a net energy loser. Meanwhile, the more methanol we produce the higher corn prices rise in Haiti, Nicaragua and every other country we convinced to dismantle their local sustainable (oops, slipped there) agricultural systems over the last decades. Electric cars in America will likely run indirectly on the remains of our massive coal reserves. Again, input substitution.

Beyond the narrow-mindedness of input substitution, the most popular interpretation of sustainability has less to do with the preserving the planet for the Seventh Generation than with making compromises. The Sustainability Triangle is a way of watering down high environmental standards. It is aiming low, not high. William McDonough says, “Being less bad is not being good. It is just being less bad.” If the greatest goal of our most innovative schools, businesses and government agencies is to be less bad, what happens if we fall short? What kind of message does “being less bad” send to our children? Who is driving this natural gas powered bus?

The “triple bottom line” is still a bottom line.

“People, Profits, Planet” is still two versus one. It’s not easy to beat a double-team.

Sustainability was new and exciting ten years ago. It was an admirable goal then, but times have changed. Substituting inputs is a grossly inadequate strategy to address the manifold pressures closing in on human culture. “Being less bad” only buys enough time to figure out how to be good. That time has come.

It is a good day to be good!

Obama – Hope we can belive in!
Stewart – Humor always works.
Colbert – Give me the bump, please.
Beck – I'm turning positive, Glenn. Act fast!
Jack – "This world is gonna hurt, you better turn that thing down..."

Peace and Post Petroleum, Nedly, RfD

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Episode 4: An Inconvenient Inconvenience

Episode 4: An Inconvenient Inconvenience

(Written on the grid)

The entire American infrastructure is based on convenience made possible by cheap, abundant oil: fast food, convenience stores, single-serve packages, drive-up windows, drive-by shootings, escalators, elevators, moving sidewalks. (This is beginning to sound like a Billy Joel song.) Do you see anything wrong with this model?

I like design. Let me rephrase that. I like good design. Good design, for me, takes full advantage of natural energy flows and minimizes dependence on fossil fuels. Very little design over the last century is good design. The general motto, according to William McDonough, was “If brute force is not working you’re not using enough of it.” If a building was cool, add fossil fuel. If a building was hot, add fossil fuel. One size fits all. (See International Style of architecture.) I’ll call this the Petroleum Paradigm (P2).

But the problem P2 is that when we built these inefficient buildings, building them was also cheap (in energy costs). Now we have all these obsolete behemoths that not only consume massive amounts of energy but they also took massive amounts of energy to build in the first place (embodied energy). Now that energy is expensive, we are faced with a dilemma: do we use lots more energy to build energy efficient buildings or do we embrace the embodied energy in existing buildings and try to retrofit them? There is no one answer to this. Every region, every microclimate, and every building needs to be examined individually. This will not be easy or convenient. But it needs to happen now. It needs to happen in American before next winter. Get on it people.


This just in from NPR:
Exxon suddenly has a butt load of money. Have you heard about this? Who’d have guessed? They have pledged to invest 125 billion dollars to find more oil. Why didn’t I think of that?!?

More good news from NPR!
(Am I becoming the Beavis and Butthead of NPR?)

Hormel profits up 14% first quarter! Seems Americans are eating more Spam. Who’d have guessed? A 12-ounce can averages $2.62. Cheaper that gas! Put it in your belly and ride a bike.

Obama – I speak a little Spanish too.
Stewart – Come on, John.
Colbert – No bears, I promise.
Beck – You’ve already breached the topic.
Jack – Surf’s up

Peace and Post petroleum, Nedly, RfD

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Three Degrees of Peak Oil: Improvisational Tragedy

Episode 3: Three Degrees of Peak Oil: Improvisational Tragedy.
5/28/05 (1st Anniversary)
Written on the grid.

My girlfriend is selling her Toyota Tacoma. (Yes, a girl with a truck. That’s why I love her.) She took all of the paperwork out of the glove box to post the truck on Auto Trader. I noticed the Fuel Economy Information provided by the DOE and EPA – supposedly our government watchdogs on all things environmental and energetic.

Besides the fact that the truck gets an embarrassingly low 19 mpg highway, at the center bottom of the page it says, “Estimated Annual Fuel Cost: $1,235.” That’s it.

No information on what price of gas the estimate is based on.

No information on number of miles the estimate is based on.

Just magic: $1,235.

I think she should call Toyota and demand a rebate!

It is clear that someone designed this Fuel Economy Guide. It is clear that his/her supervisor approved it. It is clear that millions of Americans looked at the guide -they just did not care what it said. And no one. No one at DOE. No one at EPA. Not your father or your mother or your brother or you sister said, “This is fucked up. This is just a number. What’s it based on?”

Was it ignorance or apathy? Which is more dangerous?

And I wonder how the DOE/EPA publishes this uninformative information these days. By the time they print the paper it’s obsolete? Maybe they could do it on the internet and update it daily as gas prices rise. Or maybe have radio stations announce a list of estimated annual fuel costs for all vehicles every morning like they do with school closings during snowstorms. Or maybe on American Idol. At least that way they’d know the information would be well distributed.

Said girlfriend told me that my other blog entries are too long. Sorry to bore you blog readers. Sorry to take your time away from American Idol.

So I’ll end this now. But I’ll end it on a positive note. Sorry again.

This is my money saving solution for gas stations across America:

Take the 1’s used for posting gas prices and turn them into 4’s using a little white paint. You’re never going to use those 1’s again anyway. Those 4’s will be plenty handy until August when you’re gonna need a butt load of 5’s. In the meantime, please pass the savings on to your customers. They sure could use a break at the pump.

Obama – Running mate?
Stewart – This is timely stuff, John.
Colbert – Word me, dude.
Beck – Endorsement for Obama and me?
Jack – How much is biodiesel this summer?

Peace and Post petroleum, Nedly, RfD

Friday, May 23, 2008

Episode Two: Think Oily (Re)Act Locally

Episode Two: Think Oily (Re)Act Locally
(Written using solar electricity.)

Memorial Day weekend is coming. Vroom. Vroom. Let’s spend some time honoring the memories of all the soldiers who gave their lives for U.S. imperialism and ensuring the continued flow of crude oil to our shores. Lets remember their contribution by burning as much oil in one weekend as we possibly can. This will ensure that more and more soldiers will follow in their footsteps to their graves. Talk about job security…for the military industrial complex.

This just in from NPR: (Sorry, I did not catch the source, but I suspect a AAA spokesman.) Even though gas prices are high, they are not high enough to prevent people from taking their kids on vacation this weekend. Driving has not yet been significantly curtailed in America. “It’s still the least expensive way for a group of people to travel.” Does that include the cost of the Iraq war? Does it include the clean up after Katrina? Does it include Miramar/Burma? Tornados in Atlanta? Crop failures in Australia due to drought? Asthma? Oil spills? Squashed turtles?

Squashed turtles make me unbelievably sad. It takes decades for the females of many species of turtle to reach sexual maturity. During that time they have to find food, avoid predators, overwinter, etc. Then as soon as these lovely ladies get knocked up and head for the hills to lay their eggs they come across route 11, or route 22, or route 66 where Memorial Day weekenders are getting their kicks. You know the rest of the story. Mrs. Yertle gets pancaked along with her eggs along with all of their hopes and dreams of a bright reptilian future. Eggs have rights, right Mitt? Or did you change your mind again?

This just in from Juno, Alaska: Electricity rates up 400% to 500%! This is not a joke. An avalanche wiped out the power lines from a hydroelectric dam so the city cranked up diesel generators to reestablish supply. (If you have not noticed, diesel prices are a little high right now.) So in a matter of weeks the city of Juno has cut electricity use by 30%. How? Lots of simple, little solutions. Spokesperson: “I don’t know anyone who uses incandescent light bulbs anymore.”

It’s the economy, stupid! The vast majority of Americans do not respond to environmental arguments. I know. That’s been my job for eighteen years. A heck of a lot of people just do not give a shit. We failed miserably on climate change.

I want my SUV!

Most Americans only respond to cash. “Show me the money!” More like, “Show me the price tag.” Four dollars a gallon?!?

I don’t want my SUV!

And for the first time since Carter (Bless you Jimmy) Americans are seeking out more fuel-efficient vehicles. People are dumping their SUVs at below Kelley Blue Book value. Meanwhile, old school Hondas and Toyotas are gaining value. This is the first major public indication that the value of things that are energy inefficient will from now on be approaching zero while things that are energy efficient will approach infinity. For this major economic transition I am well positioned. The post-petroleum lifestyle that I have developed over the last 20 years has informed my investment decisions: bicycles, panniers, B.O.B. trailer, solar electricity, wheel barrows, garden carts, bow saws, hammers, high wheel cultivators, organic fertilizer, scythes, push reel (also real) mowers, loppers, axes, mauls (not malls), hand-crank coffee grinder, French press, wind-up radio, wood stoves, solar hot water system, solar parabolic cooker, rakes, picks, shovels and implements of destruction (town dump also closed on Thanksgiving).

What do all of these investments have in common?

This just in from NPR: Obesity is a major problem in America, and increasingly for employers. “Americans are getting fatter faster.” (Alliterative quote of the day!) We’re talking health care costs here. Think diabetes and hypertension. Wonder how that happened?

This just in from NPR: “High oil prices may push the economy into a recession.” Fuck me!

“The government tends to make things look better than they actually are.” Fuck me!

It takes six to eighteen months for economists to look back on the economy to determine whether there was a recession. Interesting. It also takes time to look back and identify Peak Oil. It is also something that is only identified in hindsight. The problem is that once Peak Oil has been tagged it may be too late to extract so many collective heads from so many collective anuses. But that has not kept me from trying. (I am the most optimistic person you’ll ever meet.)

In my experience, environmentalists are proactive and economists are reactive. So after 20 years as a failed environmentalist I am embarking on a new career as an economist. My greatest asset is that I’ve never taken an economics course in my life.

I am now a reactionary. I am reacting to a crisis that finally people are starting to understand. Apparently 80% of Americans now believe that the price of oil will never go back down. This is the most significant survey data published since…survey data first became published. So, my peeps. Rise up and be heard! You say you want a revolution? Follow me! My portrait would look great on a t-shirt.

Obama – I changed my mind. Make me the next Federal Reserve Chair.
Stewart – I wait for your reply, Daily.
Colbert – Grow a pair.
Beck – Grow your hair.
Jack – I’m serious. I have an awesome song called Last House on the Road. No F-bombs, I promise.

Peace and Post petroleum, Nedly, RfD