Friday, June 13, 2014

A Proposal for a New Cult

I’m starting to sound like a broken record with this idea of reclaiming farmland for sustainable communities but it’s the only thing I really think is worth talking about at this point.  There are thousands of other writers rewriting the same ideas over and over again in slightly different words, creating nearly identical books for things we shouldn’t really need any books for at all.  I really don’t want to be a part of that problem but using a few different scenarios can help make sense of things.  First I brought up reruralization just as a suggestion.  Then I simplified things by imagining how I’d make it happen on a large scale if I was the sovereign ruler of the world.  Then, arguably even sillier, how the existing governments could potentially incentivize the concept.  Now for a new thought experiment, let’s imagine the role philanthropy can play in bringing it about.


Rich People.  Celebrities, actors, musicians, artists, athletes, models, business people, politicians, drug dealers….  They have a lot of fucking money.  And a lot of people in this country have bought into the idea that there’s nothing wrong with that.  Apparently they’re not to blame for any of the problems in the world because it’s government policies that promote their behavior.  Well, ignoring the role lobbying has played in bringing those policies about and in keeping them going, it is at least true that not all rich people support those policies, even though they are benefitting greatly from them.  And I understand that the way things are now these people can get away with claiming to need more than average (ignoring the fact that “the way things are” isn’t the way things need to be).  Gated houses to keep the psychotic fans out, security guards, agents, lawyers, and masses of capital can be real necessities for the upper class in the modern world, just as a lot of us normal folk can get away with calling computers and cell phones necessities.  Over and over again what start as luxuries become necessary just to earn a living.  What’s totally unjustifiable though is $5,000 remote controlled toilets, private jets, personal collections of sports cars and 100,000 square foot mansions.  To spend a quarter million dollars on your daughter’s wedding gown is the same as deciding that a dress she’ll wear for one day is more important than a year’s supply of food for a hundred starving kids.  That’s not a decision anyone should be able to make.  And it may be true that such things benefit some businesses and give the lower class more work to do but with the effect this has on the environment and on society, such businesses shouldn’t be supported and such work shouldn’t be done.  You can almost a make case for spending $500,000 on a sports car or $500 on a t-shirt when you consider the fact that a Ferrari doesn’t use much more material than a typical car, maybe 2-3 times more, yet costs 25 times more.  So using the same amount of money to buy 25 cars would actually cause something like 10 times more damage.  It still doesn’t justify spending money on vehicles when it can be spent on more important things though.  Frankly, not a single Ferrari should even exist.  Half the food being produced is thrown out because poor people can't afford it and houses are left empty even though there's enough homeless to fill them.  Then those houses crumble from the lack of simple maintenance.   So I'm not suggesting that wealth inequality is actually benefitting anything.  I’m just pointing out that bringing more of the world’s poor into the middle class lifestyle isn’t the answer.  More on that in a minute.


I’ve mentioned already in a previous post the impossibility of a true democracy with such obscene levels of inequality (two other prerequisites being an educated populace and elected leaders who are held to their campaign promises).  For some reason the idea of a dollar being a de facto ballot is easier for people to grasp than the idea of the upper class being a de facto oligarchy.  I want to talk now about the difference between earning something and deserving it.  Somehow large portions of the lower class, mostly conservatives, still believe that the rich deserve what they have and the poor what they don’t, as if they could all reach the same level of wealth if everyone just worked harder, like one planet is capable of providing so much and as if those who’ve acquired thousands of times more money have worked thousands of times harder.  To earn something is to accept payment, or some other form of reward, for providing some type of service.  Somebody wants something done and has the capital to entice someone else to make it happen for them.  If the laborer completes the task and isn’t given the previously agreed compensation, he can justifiably say “Hey, we had a deal!  I earned it!”  However, to say “Hey, I deserve it” wouldn’t necessarily be true.


People do all sorts of horrendous things for money, things that make prostitution look admirable by comparison.  In fact, one definition of prostitution is “the unworthy or corrupt use of one’s talents for the sake of personal or financial gain.”  Sounds like a pretty good description for how most of us spend our days.  We’re basically pandering to the base desires of addicts, even exploiting their addictions when we can.  And that’s more of a middle class work description.  The upper class are the real pimps, profiting from the labor of their whores while keeping them dependent by forcibly injecting heroine into their arms or dumbing them down or threatening them or any other technique for keeping them on their corners.  To deserve something is to say that you’ve shown to be someone who will use it (whatever it is) responsibly, for the best of society.  And unlike earning, there are limits to what can be deserved.  Frankly, there’s no invention, medical breakthrough or cherished piece of artwork that can make anyone worthy of living in Oprah’s $85 million mansion, or even one of her spare mansions.  The world only has so much to go around.  She can brag all she wants about giving away millions of dollars but it doesn’t change the fact that she lives as if her luxury is more important than thousands of the world’s poor simply being able to survive.  If she gave away literally 99% of her wealth she’d still have more than most of us can imagine ($29,000,000 by my calculation) and yet by giving away something like 10% of her earnings she’s built herself a reputation as one of the world’s most generous, caring human beings.  Give me a break.  The average middle class American gives away a comparable percentage to charity (7.6%) despite the fact that to give away just half of their earnings would put them into poverty.  If you’ve ever given someone a dollar so they could get a drink from a vending machine you have more of a right to brag about philanthropy than Oprah does.  Even if that doesn’t account for 10% of your earnings at least you didn’t convert so much of the world into flamboyant energy-guzzling structures, lawn grass, decorative plants and private beaches that are now off limits to people who would actually swim there more than one weekend per year.  To take so much then give to charities that were set up to deal with the problems that your lifestyle has caused is like breaking into someone’s house, stealing all they have and taking them out for a beer afterward.


If given the opportunity to build a new house you’d put no thought at all into energy saving designs or non-toxic materials, even now that the effects of climate change, pollution and over consumption are so dire, you don’t deserve that opportunity.  If given the opportunity to decide how a parcel of land is used, now that we all know the problems of habitat loss, large-scale farming and long distance transportation, you’d convert it to lawn grass, non-edible decorative plants, pavement and chlorinated water, you don’t fucking deserve that opportunity.  I still can’t believe how many people make these same stupid decisions.  Building something with south facing windows, more natural materials, composting toilets, edible landscaping and fish ponds is more beautiful, less expensive and not even much of a change in lifestyle to a typical suburban house with septic system, lawn (which requires the same amount of work as maintaining perennial crops and is nowhere near as interesting), decorative yew trees (as if these are better looking than fruit or nut trees) and a plastic pool.  It just shows how unqualified office workers and businessmen are to make these decisions.  How much money you have or how hard you’ve worked isn’t even a factor.  Actually, the way things are set up now, how backwards the rewards of our economic system are, the more you’ve earned the least you probably deserve.  That’s generalizing though.


I’ve had wealthy friends and some of them seemed as caring and generous as anybody else.  I’ve tried to argue in the past that it’s impossible for good people to acquire so much but there are people out there who just kind of get handed these fortunes and don’t know what to do with them.  And there are celebrities that I think are a little more sincere than Oprah.  While Oprah, Bill Gates, Bill O’Reilly, the Koch brothers, Waltons, Rockefellers, Carnegies and Morgans all fit into the “efficiency in philanthropy” model, where they donate in conspicuous ways that help them win fans, sell books, and promote their own business interests, there are others who seem to just realize they have way more than they know what to do with and that don’t really feel they deserve so much.  While they don’t necessarily deserve to be glorified (I’ll point out the hypocrisies as I go) they at least show some potential to help with real solutions.


First let me say how much I abhor celebrity gossip and how irritating this little bit of research was for me.  Hopefully it helps me make my case.  Anyway, there’s Keannu Reeves.  After cashing in on one of the Matrix movies he decided to give a million dollars to each member of the special f/x team, unfortunately creating more rich people who will buy more stuff and build bigger houses.  Harrison Ford and Tom Friedman work to spread information about ecocide with the show Years of Living Dangerously, then go back home to their $12.6 million and $9 million mansions.  Beyonce makes the poignant video for her heartfelt song “I was here” expressing concern for the footprint she leaves on the world.  I guess that explains the 1,000 square foot shoe closet (there’s really nothing crazier than worrying about leaving your mark on the world right now.  With plastic and nuclear pollution, dammed rivers, hidden sewage infrastructure under otherwise fertile land, the future will know we were here, that we lived like greedy assholes and loved every second of it, and they’re going to fucking hate us for it).  Brad Pitt plays the role of Tyler Durden, a character that opened up a lot of people to anarcho-primitivist ideas, narrates eco-themed shows on Link TV and gets a $20 million heart-shaped island from Angelina Jolie (another supposed philanthropist) as a birthday present.


A little less hypocritical would be Ellen Page.  She takes a permaculture design course, spends a month living in an eco-village (maybe just for research before filming The East?) and even uses the word “permaculture” on TV.  Yet she still decides to live in a mansion.  Rosanne Barr decided to take the simple living even further, starting a 50 acre farm in Hawaii specializing in macadamia nuts but hosting a large variety of other crops as well.  And obviously she’s come out with some great criticisms of the U.S. government during her presidential run, which was kind of interesting.  Although being a little more down to earth than most people with $80 million she still fits in a little too much with her celebrity friends.  Joe Rogan has come out against the drug war, interviewed tons of people on his podcast, spreading awareness for whatever issues he can.  I think he’s sincere and on the right track but a little confused with his analysis of things.  He seems a little too firmly ensconced in the upper class to really get it, like saying the prices of medical marijuana are fine and that taxing the hell out of it isn’t a problem.  I’m sure millionaires aren’t that concerned with having to pay thousands of dollars a year for cannabis oil if they get sick but if it can be produced anywhere for practically nothing I don’t see why anyone else should be ok with that.  On a more positive note, he also keeps his own chickens.  Danny Glover is a great example of a celebrity-activist, being the only one I know of to actually challenge the concept of economic growth.  Understanding that, why does he live in a 6,000 square foot house?  And just to mention one more, Tim Mcilrath.  He writes amazing songs for his band Rise Against, spreads awareness, makes millions of dollars and still lives like a relatively normal middle class American.  I don’t really have any dirt on him besides the whole being a millionaire thing.


So there’s all these people, they care about the problems of the world and have a shit ton of money to do something about it.  What would help out more than simply helping the poor buy more stuff?  Why not actually empower the poor by funding the transformation of destructive farms into self-sufficient eco-villages?  Take away the need for consumption for as many people as possible.  Take away their dependence on destructive industries and reverse the toxifying, carbon-emitting effects of agriculture.  Force the government to put more consideration into steady-state and degrowth economic models and cause irreparable damage to companies like Monsanto and Cargill.  Help make simple living the new thing.  Money can make accomplishing those things a whole lot easier.


Farmers around the world are under serious pressure to keep the same stupid business model going.  Being indebted to big agri-biz companies makes them unable to make changes even when they want to.  The first thing to save that land would be to pay off their debt, something any celebrity could easily afford (at least one farm per celebrity anyway).  With a little more funding they can start the transition to organic perennial polycultures, hiring more help to dig swales, plant trees, graze animals outside and harvest crops by hand.  That alone would be huge.  There’s currently something like 90 million acres of corn monoculture in the U.S., the majority of which being GMO, and 80 million acres of soy, being 90% GMO.  Those 2 crops alone account for 170 million acres (approximately the size of Texas) of degrading land, enormous quantities of toxic fertilizers and pesticides, and depleting aquifers.  That land is a blank slate as far as I’m concerned.  If we can prevent it from becoming desert (and a new carcinogen-laced dust bowl), we can design it to be ideal habitat for human beings.


Imagine a farmer with a thousand acres of corn is given all he needs to turn it into a thousand acre food forest.  Why wouldn’t he do it?  He knows the land is degrading, that he’s contributing to pollution and climate change and that his own family’s health is being compromised every day that they live this way.  He hates the corporations that put him in debt and doesn’t want to keep contributing to their profits.  The first step of the process is a no brainer.  And that first step alone already makes at least as big a difference as any other existing charity.  Convincing farmers to let people live on their land and people in cities to adapt that lifestyle is a bigger challenge.  That next stage decreases the need for mechanized harvesting and transporting, as well as the need for hundreds of people, potentially a thousand for a thousand acre farm, to produce or sell worthless crap for a living.  That would be enormous.  If the idea spreads to thousands of acres more, hopefully all farmland, it could show the world that we still deserve to exist as a species.


Getting farmers to share their land will take some serious salesmanship, especially those of the staunch Republican ilk, but I don’t think any bullshitting is necessary.  No matter how you look at it, it really is in their best interest.  Even if they don’t agree that there’s no future for humanity if they don’t sequester carbon, it’s hard to deny that there’s no future in the current industrial farming model if they don’t save their soil, or even just if oil prices go up.  Even if they don’t agree that the very concept of business is a problem, large-scale agriculture isn’t as profitable per acre as small-scale.  Breaking one 1,000 acre farm into 200 separate 5 acre plots could increase profits.  Corn makes at most a few hundred dollars profit per acre after expenses while a diversity of specialty organic crops, given more attention and harvested by hand can make a few thousand dollars per acre.  Taking 10% of the harvest from each plot, still leaving them enough to sustain themselves, would yield the same return while requiring much less work for the farmer (obviously all farmland can’t be used to grow expensive specialty crops but the first batch of eco-villages could definitely be sold that way.  It would take a real revolution in our economy for the majority of farmland to be self-sufficient communities anyway).


That idea may bear a scary resemblance to feudalism but I’m open to it at least as a transition stage, and others will be more interested in such living arrangements as things break down in the not too distant future.  Already with unemployment so high, the lack of confidence in the economy recovering and more people turning to the black market for their livelihoods, more and more people are gaining an interest in going back to the land.  With the huge surge in survivalist shows on TV, filming the project and turning it into its own reality TV show or documentary could cut back on expenses.  That may even have added benefits like keeping corporate intimidation at bay (cameras are the new scare crows) or spreading public interest.  I’d hope that it doesn’t come to that but more ridiculous things have been done.  Worst case scenario though, just buy the farm.  Pay the guy off and hire some permaculture designers to take over.  Considering that the cost of farmland in the United States averages around $3,000 per acre, for 1,000 acres a few million dollars could get things started.


It would take 10-20 years to diversify the harvests and detoxify the land enough for people to actually live on it, and likely only if they have rainwater collectors for the first decade or so.  The goal is to set up a living arrangement that requires no dependence on any destructive industries, meaning no plastic, metal or even glass eventually.  Being dogmatic about such things immediately though isn’t realistic.  As long as things move steadily in that direction that’s the best anyone can hope for.  It’s going to take a long time to relearn all these skills and the artifacts of industrial civilization aren’t going anywhere any time soon.  To ban cooking pots, nylon clothing, eye glasses and windows would be the same as letting the damage caused to create those things have been for nothing.  The inhabitants just need to keep asking themselves “how will I still get what this gives me when this is gone?”  Sure the affluent world will be calling them a crazy cult but they don’t have to actually live up to that title.


Funding the actual homes built on the land shouldn’t be too challenging.  When I suggested building “simple dwellings” on the land, I wasn’t talking about earthships or a new “green” suburban development.  I meant simple dwellings, yurts, teepees, cob, adobe or stone huts, pit houses, wigwams, etc.  Human beings survived in structures of tree sapling skeletons covered in tree bark in the northern U.S. for thousands of years.  The people of the sub-arctic lived in tents of whale bone and seal skins, using snow as their only building material to shelter them during hunting expeditions.  The Bushmen of the Kalahari slept in structures no more formidable than a bird’s nest while surrounded by lions and hyenas.  We have no good excuse for building anything more lavish than cob huts or longhouses, although adding simple composting toilets and rocket stoves or similar heating technologies made out of mud bricks or stone should be acceptable luxuries.  I’m sure there’s legal bullshit to deal with (safety codes are set up more to protect businesses than people) but those with money have shown to be good at circumventing such issues.  I’m sure their lawyers can come up with something.


There are different variations for how such a community can be arranged.  So far what I’ve described is sort of individualistic, what might appeal to people who like having their own property and privacy, probably only making grazing land a commons.  And it’s easy enough to visualize some dwellings being plopped on a plot of land that I don’t think anyone needs a diagram or anything to make sense of it.  Since part of the idea is to get people out of cities though, the plan should be more appealing to urbanites.  Those in semi-rural suburbs are already living in low enough population densities and with enough land to have some potential for sustainability.  Their houses are kind of a problem but technically even constructing teepees in their yards would use more materials than just staying in their huge houses (although in the long term the larger amount of heating fuel, replacement of windows or need to add insulation and other retrofits may still justify tearing them down immediately in my opinion.  I actually cringed rereading one of my older posts where I said retrofitting these houses could make the suburbs self-sufficient.  That really just buys more time because a trombe wall heated house obviously isn’t producing its own glass or any of the other materials needed to maintain the structure).


I’ve been extremely averse to cities in previous posts, and my opinion on that hasn’t changed.  However, clustering houses together can have some serious benefits regarding security, less building materials to house the same number of people, having a more communal feel, etc.  You can’t get too carried away with it though.  There are still the problems of spreading disease easier, too many people living together to know each other, loss of personal accountability, and when you start building vertically it defeats the purpose of saving materials because walls need to be thicker and stronger anyway.  Also the larger the project the more sedentary life has to be.  It’s too solid a structure to take down and move with you, although this is true of even the smallest cob, stone or adobe structure.  Most preindustrial, non-civilized humans avoided totally permanent buildings.  When overrun by ants, fleas or other pests in a world where you can’t just call an exterminator it’s generally a better idea to just accept defeat and set up someplace else, and it happens everywhere eventually.  Also, to build or reconstruct houses regularly helps keep the knowledge of how to build alive. 


Clusters of 50 to several hundred houses hardly compares to the insanity of modern cities.  For New York City to provide an acre of local land to each of their inhabitants would require 12,500 square miles (can that even be considered local at that scale?), roughly the size of Connecticut and New Jersey combined, which already have twelve and a half million of their own people to provide for, which means even that land is too crowded already.


With those caveats out of the way, let’s look at how a more clustered community could be set up.  When I first started playing around with this my biggest concern was figuring out how to have an intensive rotational grazing system without miles of annoying fencing to deal with.  Almost everyone who does holistic management uses electric net fencing, which isn’t going to be around forever.  A lot of permaculture designs I’ve seen rely so much on technology that they really shouldn’t get away with calling their system permaculture.  In some cases it’s not really a huge deal.  They can slowly build up certain things knowing that the technology can’t be relied on indefinitely.  Others though put almost no thought whatsoever into how things could function without electricity or water pumps or green houses.  I’ve even heard Bill Mollison recommend running more machines on compressed air because he sees a lot of potential in trompe compressors for producing cheap and relatively clean energy far into the future.  I can’t say I’m a fan of that idea.  I absolutely hate seeing toxic infrastructure covered with a pretty eco-veneer, such as plastic lining to seal ponds or hidden plastic drip irrigation pipes.  I used to have neighbors obsessed with keeping their grass perfect who would inundate their lawns with poisons to keep all dandelions, clovers, plantains, purslane and wild strawberries at bay, leaving them with a ridiculously artificial looking green carpet, complete with little warning signs along the perimeter so people know if their kids or pink sweatered dogs play in this yard they could get sick.  Fucking disgusting.


One thing I think can work is to use the houses themselves to enclose the animals in courtyard paddocks.  The general idea I came up with is to elongate the houses (making them more wall-like) and arrange them in squares.  Then those squares are arranged in a larger square, making a giant ring of courtyards.  To minimize the need for fencing even further, an aquaculture pond/lake can go in the middle.  Depending how detoxified the land is by the time construction starts, most of the building material could come straight from this excavation (I’m not advocating walling off existing ponds or lakes that wildlife already depends on).  With all the designs I’ve played around with on paper the space for aquaculture is disproportionally large so excavating more of a ring and leaving an island or several islands in the center could be interesting as well, maybe with a wavy shoreline to provide as much edge space as possible for growing cattails, wapato, water chestnuts, water cress or whatever shallow water plants can grow in the climate.  Even better might be something similar to a Central American chinampas system, digging out more of a grid pattern that leaves many small square islands for more crop production.  The space could also house ducks, grow extra forage for livestock, be a safe area to keep bees, be planted with more nut trees or even just be a cool little hangout spot if production elsewhere proves sufficient.  There should be community areas for games and meetings someplace.  While traditional cultures do provide a lot of examples of work doubling as games, such as dances being used to tamp down soil for their buildings’ floors, it is a good idea to provide venues for less cooperative activities where people can get their aggression out.  An island might be a fun place to do such things.  Digging out some smaller ponds on the island could help diversify the water habitat as well, creating areas more appealing to frogs or turtles.  Swampy land can be extremely productive for anyone open to new dinner options.  There are a lot of possibilities.


Obviously cows can swim so water isn’t the best option for a barrier but what the water does, besides easy drinking access for the animals, is allow for an easy to move floating wall, removing the need for dozens of static ones.  With rotational grazing only one paddock is used at a time, or with a succession of species, such as cows followed by chickens then pigs, only a few at a time.  Not having as many walls to build really adds up when you’re talking about 40 paddocks or more.  This also means that the gates enclosing each paddock can be moved to other paddocks as well since most can remain open, this time being small enough for a couple people to carry by hand pretty easily. 


To minimize the need for fencing even further, vegetables can be grown on raised beds on the roofs.  I imagine the complex looking almost like a one story pueblo, maybe even with entrances accessible by ladders like the Native Americans of the southwest used.  The interior walls could also be removed connecting all dwellings like an Iroquois longhouse, further reducing needed building materials.  By doing so, this would represent the extreme opposite of the individualistic model, where virtually everything, including living space, is basically a commons.  Both extremes and everything in between are worth considering in my opinion.


Below is a rough drawing of one possible layout (I was tempted to make more illustrative drawings since this blog is called Doodles and Prose and I do technically have the ability to create more interesting images than this.  I really want nothing to do with art anymore though), this being about as generic and simple as it can possibly be for the sake of clarity.  It shows 200 20’x80’ houses (a little large for austere living but when you store food all winter you do need lots of storage space.  Even Native Americans constructed some surprisingly large structures) enclosing 40 paddocks, each being approximately 1 acre, and 81 potential acres in the center for aquaculture (most likely leaving a lot of that space as an island).  In the drawing it almost looks like a cattle prison, which I’d definitely like to avoid.  Each paddock being a full acre and likely set up with trees as well, it should have more of a park-like quality when actually standing on it.  Trying to keep everything proportional with a design like this is a bit of a puzzle.  You have to consider the number of houses and people living in them, number of cows needed to give them their dairy products and meat, the space needed for that number of cows to fit in one paddock, and making it all fit around 40 paddocks.  On average cows produce 6-8 gallons of milk per day and if they have a calf to feed that still leaves around 75% of it for their human parasites.  Several gallons per day should be enough for several families, so I estimated 1 milkable cow for every 2-3 houses.  With 200 houses that’s 66-100 cows plus their calves, which should be about right for an acre with intensive rotational grazing.

While I originally wanted something for only a couple hundred people (what a lot of primitivist types consider the maximum for a functional community) I found that there’s no way to arrange so few houses around anywhere near 40 paddocks, not without using super tiny paddocks or having to build extra fencing (not that I could figure out anyway).  People’s morals will never totally match so some will be ok with sacrificing the happiness of their livestock and even their own happiness for extra production.  To me, using paddocks less than a quarter acre in size is something I want nothing to do with.  A little less of a puzzle to scale up or down with population size, the outside of the complex is surrounded by 10 food forests in different stages of development, and that always stay in 10 stages of development.  These would be something like one tenth of an acre each for every person living there (a full acre of food forest per person in total).  The Native Central Americans used what they called the milpa cycle, clearing land with fire and planting it mostly with corn, beans and squash but mixing in long term perennial crops that will take several years to grow.  It’s basically what Eric Toensmeier and Dave Jacke call a rotational mosaic in their book Edible Forest Gardens.  By a section’s third or fourth year of succession it’s mostly perennial crops.  After year 10, the trees and shrubs are coppiced (not burned, at least as long as metal tools are available.  At some point resorting to fire management may be the best option though) and planted with corn, beans and squash again the next year.  Another good choice for early stage annuals would be hemp.  It needs to be designed keeping in mind that clothing fibers and building materials are just as important as food, which is also provided by hemp in the form of seeds actually (as well as medicine and entertainment depending on which strains of hemp you can get away with growing).  Done right, this is a system that remains fertile for thousands of years.


According to Toensmeier and Jacke the rotational mosaic isn’t necessarily the best way to do food forests but when dealing with a world of generalists who can’t focus on one little field of study their whole lives and with them managing hundreds of acres collectively, I think simplifying things a little bit is probably the best way to go.  Remember, the “cult” I’m advocating won’t have the internet or even books at some point in the not too distant future.  If we need to understand every micro-organism in the soil to maintain the system then it’s not going to survive. 
Below is a variation of the same design I described above with the same number of houses, all the same size, and the same number of paddocks.  As much as I thought I was onto something with the gimmick of having no walls that weren’t part of a house, the whole idea is to set up an eco-village that wastes the least building materials.  One thing I missed was that the shared walls were the shortest sides of the houses, and also it’s almost like having 2 walls separating each paddock instead of just one, so while it was an intriguing idea, it might not actually be the best way to go.  After some quick math I found that by compromising a little bit the below design needs 720’ less wall length (approximately 2% of the other design’s total), and can get away with using shorter walls in between paddocks, which is at least significant enough to take note of.  The orientation of the first design allows for the possibility of more windows on the houses so depending how dogmatically primitivist we want to be that one could still have its own benefits.

It’s important to remember as well that different things work best in different areas.  Local conditions always dictate how people live.  Trying to set up one universal philosophy will never work.  People who prefer to eat mostly vegetarian shouldn’t automatically judge anyone who eats meat every day.  In colder climates that’s the only possibility for getting all your nutrients.  Eskimos used to eat meat almost exclusively.  Compared to the other extreme, veganism, I don’t know of any preindustrial cultures that survived that way.  I don’t know if I consider it as dangerous as the Paleo crowd claims though.  Having tried it myself a while ago I just decided it wasn’t best for me.  As long as people are able to produce what they need locally with responsible land management techniques, they should all have the right to put into their bodies whatever they want as far as I’m concerned.  The same goes for drug use, sexual behavior, parenting techniques, spirituality and many other cultural variations.  If they’re producing their own necessities locally and sustainably, maybe even regeneratively, and not invading anyone else’s land, then no matter what else they decide to do they’re causing less damage than normal Americans.  They can decide for themselves what’s taboo.
I’d love to think that this type of land use becomes what we mean when we say “sustainable development” and that the whole country turns into a network of self-sufficient communities and abandoned cities with vast stretches of unoccupied wilderness (I calculated in a previous post that that if everyone lived this way we could support the same population size with less than half the land use).  I can’t say I’m holding my breath for the total revolution but the idea of at least some of these totally primitive eco-villages getting set up isn’t so unlikely.  While the more hardcore rewilders won’t be satisfied even if the majority did convert to this lifestyle, I don’t see any chance of anything more than a tiny portion of the population being able to rely on hunting and gathering for their sustenance.  Even in the most productive environments it takes at least 10 times the space to support a hunter gatherer as it does a horticulturalist.  In the more extreme examples, such as the Kalahari it took 6,400 acres (10 square miles per person).  Chestnut trees accounted for nearly half the trees in some areas of the United States 500 years ago (thanks to Native American management) and rivers were full of fish and safe to drink from.  The idea of living like a wild human animal appeals to me but it’s not something I’m ever going to see.  We just need to accept that.
Some popular environmental writers are completely insane when it comes to identifying the root of our problems.  Obviously it goes deeper than just having some corrupt politicians to replace.  Abolishing the Federal Reserve and capitalism still won’t fix everything.  I have no problem with going down to industrial civilization, and even non-industrial civilization.  Domestication is certainly worthy of a trial.  Taking away an animal’s autonomy so it can be used as your personal vehicle, or deciding its mate for it so that you can ensure a dumber and weaker progeny to be used as cuddle slaves or denying a bird its ability to fly are all things I’m hoping humanity will get away from eventually.  Hierarchy I don’t consider inherently bad in at least a minimal role, such as trusting a group of the wisest elders to make decisions for the group.  Patriarchy, whether an accurate description of modern society or not, is worth discussing.  “Separation from nature” is definitely a major one but it’s really just kind of a cute way of talking about some of these other ones without naming them.  Religion is in kind of a gray area since some, while not necessarily making sense, do promote beneficial behaviors, even if just by sheer coincidence.  Others create obligatory rituals that must be performed at any cost, even if say cutting down a tree or sacrificing some animals isn’t “affordable” at that particular time.  Sometimes it’s just creating things for the sake of impressing others that leads to undue standards of living (one reason to question these gift giving rituals that New Agers are so fond of), or personal addictions that does it.  Trying to use one word labels for root causes should be considered a root cause itself in my opinion.  We’ve already seen this with masses of stupid people blaming everything on “problems” like Jews, Muslims, gays, blacks, pagans, women, wildness, Democrats, etc.  Some purported root causes that I put in the “too far” category and that really annoy me are things like symbolic thought, language and the use of fire.  I mean, what the fuck do you want me to do?  Grow a tail?  Maybe some gills and flippers and reestablish my rightful place in the ocean?  I’ve heard relatively well respected writers suggest we should all be fruititarians (FRUITITARIANS!!!) or that using a language that has words for numbers inevitably leads to abusive behavior because it denies the uniqueness of all things.  This shit is not helpful.
I want to believe that we’re converging on some good solutions and working to make them happen but I’m still seeing each new generation of parents getting their kids even more hopelessly addicted to plastic crap than the last.  I’m still seeing movie makers resorting to using expensive, high-tech and violent films for environmentalist propaganda (Avatar being a good example, and even a lot of the good messages are questionable.  I mean, the humanoid creatures are basically born with car keys growing out of their hair and the ungulates were born with key holes.  That seems like more of a romanticized depiction of domination than a metaphor for symbiotic relationships in nature).  I’m still seeing ideas like roads made entirely out of solar panels being taken as a serious option for sustainable development.  People are still arguing over the efficacy of high-tech medicine instead of asking if the process of creating it is ethical or sustainable in the first place.  People are still trying to use cool inventions and interesting discoveries to justify our atrocities.  “Look at all we’ve learned.  Clearly civilization wasn’t a mistake.”  Really?
There’s a fine line between clever and dishonorable, brave and foolish, nationalism and racism, what we pride ourselves in and what we should be ashamed of.  Those who have accepted the rewards of the modern world should keep that in mind when deciding what they should give back and how.  Frankly, if you have the means to help turn things around you really owe it to the world to do it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Everyone Will Always Be Wrong

For anyone waiting for the perfect intellectual leader, you’re going to be waiting a long time.  In all likelihood, you’ll never stop waiting.  Everyone has their “kill whitey” moments, where they say something so stupid that you lose confidence in everything else they already said.  If it was as easy to analyze every facet of people’s personal lives as it is today with our ubiquitous camera phones and social networking websites, figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and even Bob Marley would likely not have such immaculate reputations.  In fact, despite the lack of intrusive surveillance in those times historians have still accumulated quite a bit of evidence that proves how flawed they really were.  It makes you wonder if they would have had the same support from their followers had such technologies existed in their time.  How much worse would the horizontal hostility have been between relatively like-minded groups?  Would they have gotten anything accomplished at all? 

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  Not too long ago Deep Green Resistance, one of the few groups I consider worth listening to, lost a lot of what little support they had because of some controversial statements they made regarding transgendered people.  Having recommended their books and videos to people many times before I found it pretty disturbing that I could suddenly be seen as a supporter of a hate group.  It was especially surprising considering that I’d never heard or read anything about transgendered people in any of their projects.  It didn’t exactly seem fitting with their other ideas.  My initial hunch was that this was probably based on a misinterpretation of their radical feminist rhetoric, which I’m not a fan of either.  As I started looking into it, trying to figure out what they could have said that caused such a backlash, it became increasingly apparent that their critics had no idea what they were talking about.  Their main criticism seemed to be that the founders of the organization were against the idea of letting men who wanted to be women use women’s public bathrooms, locker rooms, dorms, etc. (sounds fair enough to me).  They have addressed the concerns saying basically that they don’t hate anyone based on how they dress but it’s disrespectful to all those women who expect to be in a dick-free zone to give men that permission.  Radical feminists also consider gender to be a hierarchy in our current society and therefore consider the idea of gender to not be a choice.  I find this part of their philosophy a little confusing myself but I do sort of agree with what they’re trying to say.


Admittedly, when I first started looking into this, I didn’t even know what the distinction was between transgendered, transsexual, transvestite and just gay.  This is something I never really thought about at all and so I found it pretty annoying that I could be accused of being anti-something-I-don’t-even-have-an-opinion-on.  I didn’t start supporting DGR for their trans policy or their hardcore feminism.  I supported them because their ideas on environmentalism and social justice were closer to my own than any other group I’ve come across.  In fact, I generally share their work with the caveat “I don’t label myself a radical feminist.”  It’s not that I necessarily disagree with radical feminists.  It’s that I find their explanations to be overly confusing for topics that are already so complicated and controversial.  For example, if patriarchy is a word used to describe male-dominance then why is matriarchy the word used to describe egalitarian societies?  And if you acknowledge that men are being victimized as well since it’s more a class hierarchy than a sex hierarchy is patriarchy really the most accurate word to use in the first place?  How is it “blaming the victim” to point out that women should take precautions (such as not advertising themselves as sexual objects, not misleading men to get them to buy them stuff, not drinking themselves unconscious and expecting someone else to take care of them, etc.) and treat themselves with self-respect?  Why is it wrong to point out the problems with what women of western culture consider normal but not the destructive behaviors men have become accustomed to?  How are women innocent and men guilty if they were both trained how to act by their culture? 


I could go on and on, and to be fair feminists would have answers to all these questions but they would only resonate with other feminists who already speak the same language.  This is why I don’t agree when people call feminists “anti-man”, or just flat out crazy, but I also don’t blame them for coming to that conclusion.  It really is more a case of bad propaganda than anything.


So having said that, what gets someone labeled as transphobic?  And what even qualifies someone as transgendered as opposed to transvestite, transsexual or just gay?  I’m certainly no expert on the subject as I’ve said already (and it wasn’t too long ago that I was using “gay” and “fag” as derogatory terms for anyone or thing that sucked in some way, even though I didn’t really have anything against homosexuals) but it is a pretty nebulous term.  It’s generally used to refer to those who identify with the opposite sex more than their own.  So it’s not really about the way they dress or what surgeries they’ve had or who they’re attracted to.  It basically just comes down to whether they’d like to be treated as a member of their biological sex or the opposite.  This of course brings up questions about accepted gender roles and what makes a woman a woman as opposed to a man, etc.  I mean, can a heterosexual tomboy or male hair stylist be considered transgendered if they choose to be?  This may sound like an insignificant question but it has pretty profound ramifications when you start to consider the rights that some transgendered people are demanding.  It’s one thing to ask to be referred to as a Mrs. Instead of a Mr. but when you consider it a hate crime to be denied access to bathrooms that are designated for the opposite sex you’re really pushing it. 

The other day on Democracy Now! Amy Goodman interviewed a transgendered actress (meaning a man that lives as a woman) and they discussed some pretty disturbing statistics about the struggles transpeople deal with.  Between the hate and the confusion surrounding their lifestyle they’re likely the most persecuted demographic in our society, facing much higher rates of suicide, murder, homelessness and incarceration (Nearly half of all black transwomen spend time in prison).  So of course the question of whether transwomen should be sent to women’s prisons instead of men’s came up, and I was pretty surprised how acceptable the idea is.  To me it seems completely ridiculous to allow them to choose which one they go to.  How hard would it be for any other male prisoner to present themselves as transgendered and get themselves locked up with a bunch of vulnerable, sexually deprived women considering the obscurity of the word itself?  Obviously men’s prisons aren’t a great place to be for a transwoman, or anybody else for that matter, so I don’t know what the answer is for these people but opening up the door for further sexual assaults on women isn’t it.  Yet this seems to be exactly what the majority of radicals and progressives are proposing, and I really don’t get it.

It’s especially strange for the anti-civ crowd to be so shy about criticizing transpeople who use plastic surgery, artificial hormone therapies and who basically embrace everything they claim to hate about the modern materialistic shopaholic female.  It makes absolutely no sense.  These are people who rant nonstop about how disgusting the medical industry is and how wasteful and shallow rich white girls are but if the same behavior is demonstrated by a man it’s suddenly sacrosanct?  I don’t mean to stereotype transpeople or try to create the impression that they all fit into this category.  I’m just pointing out that any time someone is this logically inconsistent they’re either confused or insincere.  They’re being political.  I mean, how do you write books about how disgusting the pharmaceutical industry is, pointing out the effects of pollution from the manufacture and disposal of their products as well as the political clout their profits have given them and the negative social and psychological effects of their advertising then have no problem with someone subjecting themselves to unnecessary surgeries and making themselves dependent on artificial hormones?  This is the type of behavior that under any other circumstance they’d consider a self-induced disease or a further sign of society’s psychological degradation.  It represents everything that people like John Zerzan (one of DGR’s most outspoken critics and someone who agrees with 99% of what they say) would usually decry. 


You find this with virtually every group out there.  In fact, it’s as rare to find groups who have almost nothing good to say as it is to find groups have almost nothing bad to say, most being somewhere in between, none of them being perfect.  In Zerzan’s case, his best solutions seem to be breaking windows and reading poetry as far as I can tell.  I actually listen to his radio show sometimes since there are so few people out there discussing these subjects and one of his books is on my bookshelf even, and with him solutions almost never come up.  These days he tends to rant about his hatred for Derrick Jensen and Chris Hedges, which I found confusing for a while until he complained how they criticized the way black bloc anarchists conducted themselves at Occupy protests, basically trying to break windows and light shit on fire while blending in with non-violent protesters, practically using them as shields (Zerzan’s radio show is called Anarchy Radio).  Like I said, it’s clearly politics.  Their criticism wasn’t even against the “violent” tactics per se, but about sabotaging peaceful protests.  Again, seems fair enough in my opinion.


As for DGR, I’ve already criticized radical feminism a little bit.  They’re also guilty of romanticizing pre-civilized societies, saying things like rape didn’t exist in the Americas until the European colonizers showed up (literally) and that Native Americans never hunted any species to extinction.  Derrick Jensen actually makes a pretty big deal about Pleistocene Overkill in his book Endgame, and he could be right about it but I’m definitely not convinced.  Honestly though, I don’t even see any reason to worry about it.  Of course Native Americans made mistakes, especially during their first years on the continent.  That doesn’t invalidate anarcho-primitivism, bioregionalism, permaculture or anything else the anti-civ crowd advocates.  What should matter is how they learned from those mistakes and later developed sustainable cultures (as well as how some didn’t learn and made a lot of the same mistakes Europeans did).  At least their romanticism isn’t as annoying as mainstream apologism, such as the idea that the desertification of north Africa and the Fertile Crescent is solely the result of the Earth’s 20,000 year cycle as it wobbles in its orbit and has nothing to do with human activity.  The History Channel really pisses me off.


This is sort of what I’m trying to get at with this post.  We don’t need to select an entire package of solutions from any one group.  We can select parts from many flawed ones if we want to.  And Deep Green Resistance remains one of the few groups I’ve found saying the things that I think need to be heard.  I’m not going to reject everything they say simply because they aren’t perfect.  Similarly, New Age spiritual pseudoscience annoys the shit out of me but I still recommend listening to Charles Eisenstein for his insights into economics.  I consider the Zeitgeist movement’s solutions to be so delusional as to be dangerous but I find their criticisms of the current system to be some of the clearest and most persuasive.  I consider the Transition Town movement to be too little too late but I appreciate the success they’ve had in making radical ideas more acceptable to the mainstream.  Feminists and tree-hugger hippie types explain their ideas in ways that don’t resonate with those who most need to hear what they have to say but I recognize the importance in challenging the type of language the mainstream accepts as normal.  And the list goes on. 


Nobody will ever have the one perfect opinion about everything.  Not only that but even the attempt to develop such a thing is itself destructive.  There is no one philosophy that translates the same to every region of the globe.  And even if there was, we should still allow for variations.  Uniformity is inimical to resilience and stability.  As is the never ending crusade for knowledge that scientists call progress.  If knowing everything about everything is the only hope your culture has of not destroying itself then you’re fucked for one thing, and for another you’ll use that to justify atrocities (what are generally referred to as “experiments”).  The alternative is what some have taken to calling an “ignorance based worldview”, an acknowledgement of our cognitive limitations and a more realistic approach to problem solving that doesn’t inevitably lead to further complexity. 


Of course, this is a pretty nebulous concept as well.  The desired level of “ignorance” (or the maximum amount of information that can be learned and remembered without the aid of unsustainable and immoral practices) is certainly open to debate.  The way I look at it, much of our information and our “accomplishments” are inherently destructive to hold on to.  Think not only of the maintenance required for our industrial infrastructure but even our collection of books, artwork and historical artifacts we continually reprint and try to keep from decaying.  Think of what it takes to keep our supposedly accurate history lessons going, all the materials, training and coordination required.  It actually necessitates the repeating of the mistakes that the history is supposed to warn us against.  Isn’t that ostensibly why we make such a big deal about this stuff?  If the importance of history is to learn from the mistakes of the past such as slavery, imperialism and environmental negligence what’s the point in using an education system that contributes to those very problems?  Producing so much paper, building enormous universities that are large enough to shelter thousands from the elements (and that aren’t actually used for that purpose) and producing the excess needed for specialists to dedicate their lives to study and teaching is a brief experiment in human learning and it won’t last much longer. 


There’s a reason no cultures did these things before the age of cheap fossil energy.  They couldn’t.  It takes too much to support these things.  It requires more than any local landbase can provide.  This is why they used songs, stories and other mnemonics to remember what we store in volumes of textbooks and hard drives.  And this is why we should start considering a resurrection of this type of education.  It would be a good idea for us to pick out our most important lessons, leave out the trivia and start translating these ideas into easy to remember myths and jingles, something closer to fairy tale type stories than the dogmas that people have been encouraged to take literally.  Most religions were sort of scientifically designed this way in their inceptions, meant to perpetuate certain desirable behaviors while warning against others.  Teaching the origins of the universe was never really the point, at least not as much as getting people to stop asking such a pointless question.  I’m not trying to say that the ideas are scientifically valid.  As a tool for social coordination however, it does exactly what was intended (which wasn’t necessarily to promote peace and happiness, obviously).  Anyway, how to keep the lessons we’ve learned from our scientific endeavors without a massive industrial infrastructure is something we need to start considering.


Think also of our own personal accomplishments, namely the careers and possessions that are the result of all our hard work.  Think of our identities, everything we’ve committed ourselves to and vehemently advocated, everything we think we deserve.  Letting go of such things can be rough.  What will it take to admit that so much of what we’ve done and taken pride in was not only a waste of time but actually immoral?  And to get this post back on subject, what will it take to admit how wrong we are?  All of us?  About everything?  And that we always will be?  Well, the word “miracle” comes to mind.  Being a little more pragmatic though I guess I’d say something like “a way out.” 


In my last couple posts I went into detail about the importance of losing our dependence on the industries that are currently destroying the world, and therefore the need for what you could call “primitive infrastructure,” basically land restored and designed to produce everything humans need as well as settlement patterns that can give all people local and free access to those necessities (which inevitably requires mass relocation from cities to farmland).  While this may still fit into the miracle category, it is the only possibility to sustain anywhere near our current population size and likely the only way to reverse climate change even with a smaller population so therefore I see no reason to advocate anything more “realistic.”  I’m not going to reiterate my entire argument here for a third time but my previous essays are there for anyone interested.  I also highly recommend listening to people like Geoff Lawton, Allan Savory and John D. Liu for more detailed explanations.  If we’re serious about solving our problems then we really need to stop with the unrealistic prospect of attaining enlightenment and actually get moving with this stuff.