April 20, 2017

On Self-Sufficiency

I hold self-sufficiency as one of the highest aspirations that truly liberates us from dependence on money, market and other systems of exploitation. Most people in the environment/ organic food space would agree. But there are others like Aaron von Frank of Tyrant Farms who says one can never be self-sufficient.

His idea of self sufficiency is the proverbial man on island who must survive using only the material at his disposal. But that's total self-sufficiency, an extreme version of it, as stultifying as total dependence on others. To me, to become self-sufficient does not mean abandonment of everything produced by society, even tools, rejection of community, all organisation and social institutions.

There are degrees to which one can be self-sufficient just as the degrees to which one can be dependent on others. One can participate in community and yet can be self-sufficient to a high degree. On the other hand a complete reliance on community only breeds conformity and lack of critical thought. It's unhealthy for a community to produce only yes-men. How do you expect a member to be critical of community when the well-being of his family depends on it?

E F Schumacher, author of "Small is Beautiful" wrote about self-sufficiency in a forward to John Seymour's "Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency". In the one-page piece Schumacher succinctly provides the forgotten context around self-sufficiency and highlights why it is a fundamental requirement for the health and well being of human society. I find myself going back to it time and again. It is included below in full.

We can do things for ourselves or we can pay others to do them for us. These are the two "systems" that support us; we might call them the "self-reliance system" and the "organization system". The former tends to breed self-reliant men and women; the latter tends to produce organization men and women. All existing societies support themselves by a mixture of the two systems; but the proportions vary.

In the modern world, during the last hundred years or so, there has been an enormous and historically unique shift: away from self-reliance and towards organization. As a result people are becoming less self-reliant and more dependent than has ever been seen in history. They may claim to be more highly educated than any generation before them; but the fact remains that they cannot really do anything for themselves. They depend utterly on vastly complex organizations, on fantastic machinery, on larger and larger money incomes. What if there is a hold-up, a breakdown, a strike, or unemployment? Does the state provide all that is needed? In some cases, yes; in other cases, no. Many people fall through the meshes of the safety net; and what then? They suffer; they become dispirited, even despondent. Why can't they help themselves? Generally, the answer is only too obvious: they would not know how to; they have never done it before and would not even know where to begin.

John Seymour can tell us how to help ourselves, and in this book he does tell us. He is one of the great pioneers of self-sufficiency. Pioneers are not for imitation but for learning from. Should we all do what John Seymour has done and is doing? Of course not. Total self-sufficiency is as unbalanced and ultimately stultifying as total organization. The pioneers show us what can be done, and it is for every one of us to decide what should be done, that is to say, what we should do to restore some kind of balance to our existence.

Should I try to grow all the food my family and I require? If I tried to do so, I probably could do little else. And what about all the other things we need? Should I try to become a Jack of all trades? At most of these trades I would be pretty incompetent and horribly inefficient. But to grow or make some things by myself, for myself: what fun, what exhilaration, what liberation from any feelings of utter dependence on organizations! What is perhaps even more: what an education of the real person! To be in touch with actual processes of creation. The inborn creativity of people is no mean or accidental thing; neglect or disregard it, and it becomes an inner source of poison. It can destroy you and all your human relationships; on a mass scale, it can - nay, it inevitably will - destroy society.

Contrariwise, nothing can stop the flowering of a society that manages to give free rein to the creativity of its people - all its people. This cannot be ordered and organized from the top. We cannot look to government, but only to ourselves, to bring about such a state of affairs. Nor should anyone of us go on "waiting for Godot" because Godot never comes. It is interesting to think of all the "Godots" modern humanity is waiting for: this or that fantastic technical breakthrough; colossal new discoveries of oil and gasfields; automation so that nobody - or hardly anybody - will have to lift a finger any more; government policies to solve all problems once and for all: multinational companies to make massive investments in the latest and best technology; or simply "the next upturn of the economy".

John Seymour has never been found "waiting for Godot". It is the essence of self-reliance that you start now and don't wait for something to turn up.

The technology behind John Seymour's self-sufficiency is still quite rudimentary and can of course be improved. The greater the number of practitioners the faster will be the rate of improvement, that is, the creation of technologies designed to lead people to self-reliance, work-enjoyment, creativity, and therefore: the good life. This book is a major step along that road, and I wholeheartedly commend it to you,


April 18, 2017

What is Our Purpose? A Ten-year Old Answers

A simple conversation with my ten year old nephew indicates that the answer to the eternal question, "Why are we here?" is not so elusive after all.

In Ringing Cedars books children are considered next to Gods in their purity of thought. The elders treat children as adults in respect and never disturb them when they are engaged in thought. It is also said that the elders often use the children as a benchmark to check their own purity of thought.

A day or so before my nephew Kshitij turned ten he came for a sleepover and I decided to check his purity. I also wanted to test my own assumption that anyone could be made to understand our purpose on this planet with a simple guided conversation. I learnt about this method in a book by Tom Chalko.

Below is my recollection of the conversation as it happened over six months ago as we lay down on the bed ready to go to sleep.

Me: Kshitij, let's do an exercise. I'll ask you a series of questions and you tell me the answer of each. This is not a test though. There are no right or wrong answers. Just think about the question for a moment and then let me know what you think.

Kshitij: Okay.

Me: What do you think is easier of the two: to build a house or put life into a dead body?

Kshitij: (Begins to say "to put life into...", stops midway and corrects himself) To build a house?

Me: Okay. Do you think a house could build itself? That all the material needed comes together and ends up in a functional house with a kitchen, toilet, carpeting etc?

Kshitij: No.

Me: Okay. Do you know why? Maybe because a house has to be designed first? It has to be thought of and planned and it has to be built by someone, right?

Kshitij: Right.

Me: Okay. Okay, so if a house cannot build itself, do you think life can create itself? Remember, you said it's easier to build a house than to put life into a dead body.

Kshitij: No, I don't think life can create itself.

Me: Okay, so can we agree that if a house cannot build itself, there's little chance that life can create itself.

Kshitij: (Nods in agreement)

Me: If a house must be designed by someone, can we then also agree that life must have be designed by someone as well?

Kshitij: Hmm.

Me: Life is much more complex than a house. There are so many species that co-exist in harmony with each other and there are complex systems such as the seasons and the solar system. Everything has been designed in such great detail even at the level of a cell.

Can we agree that such a complex life must require a high degree of intelligence to design it?

Kshitij: Yes.

Me: Can we call this, the great intelligence? Or let's say, God?

Kshitij: Okay.

Me: Alright, let's talk about something else for a moment. Do you know anyone or have you ever seen anyone designing or creating something without reason?

Kshitij: No

Me: There's always a reason, right? Even if it is to pass time or destroy what's created right after creating it, no one creates something without a reason.

Kshitij: (Nods)

Me: So there must be a reason for creating such a complex life too, isn't it?

Kshitij: Yes.

Me: Why do you think the great intelligence or God designed life and created our world?

Kshitij: (thinks for a moment and delivers a thoughtful reply) For his entertainment?

Me: (delighted) "For his entertainment!" Exactly!

In other words, can we say, "for his pleasure"?

Kshitij: Yeah.

Me: Now tell me something. Which of these two acts do you think would please God, the great intelligence: those that improve his creations or those that destroy them?

Kshitij: Improve.

Me: You've answered all questions, Kshitij! Thank you.

Kshitij: Mamaji, can I go to sleep now?

Me: Yes, Kshitij. Have a goodnight.

April 17, 2017

Kimi Werner: Living in Nature

How one woman's bond with nature formed during childhood kept calling her in youth to return to it.

In this wonderful TEDx talk Kimi Werner, a free diver and fish hunter, uses her life's story to illustrate a key lesson she learnt - that of slowing down when everything tells you to speed up. Her talk deeply resonated with me but not just because of the stated lesson. What really shines through is how her childhood memories of living in nature shaped her experiences later in life.

Kimi Werner hosts a NatGeo series currently running in India called "Living Free with Kimi Werner". I haven't seen the show but am told in it she travels the world to live with "people who are not just surviving, but thriving in the wild".

UPDATE 18-Apr: A longer interview with Kimi was broadcast by PBS Hawaii.

November 09, 2016

Trumpet Blower: 'Exactly What We Deserve'

On this historic occasion, re-posting (without permission) Mr. Fish's incisive caricature of Mr. Trump from six months ago with George Monbiot's equally accurate portrayal along the same lines.

The Man in the Mirror
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 26th October 2016

Donald Trump is not an outlier, but the distillation of our dominant values

What is the worst thing about Donald Trump? The lies? The racist stereotypes? The misogyny? The alleged gropings? The apparent refusal to accept democratic outcomes? All these are bad enough. But they’re not the worst. The worst thing about Donald Trump is that he’s the man in the mirror.

We love to horrify ourselves with his excesses, and to see him as a monstrous outlier, the polar opposite of everything a modern, civilised society represents. But he is nothing of the kind. He is the distillation of all that we have been induced to desire and admire. Trump is so repulsive not because he offends our civilisation’s most basic values, but because he embodies them.

Trump personifies the traits promoted by the media and corporate worlds he affects to revile; the worlds that created him. He is a bundle of extrinsic values – the fetishisation of wealth, power and image – in a nation where extrinsic values are championed throughout public discourse. His conspicuous consumption, self-amplification and towering (if fragile) ego are in tune with the dominant narratives of our age.

As the recipient of vast inherited wealth who markets himself as solely responsible for his good fortune, he is the man of our times. The Apprentice tells the story of everything he is not: the little guy dragging himself up from the bottom through enterprise and skill. None of this distinguishes him from the majority of the very rich, whose entrepreneurial image, loyally projected by the media, clashes with their histories of huge bequests, government assistance, monopolies and rent-seeking.


Read rest of Monbiot's piece

July 14, 2016

Charles Eisenstein on Brexit

The most brilliant piece of analysis on Brexit and how to respond to it comes from one of my favourite people. A slightly abridged version of the long piece is included below.
The Fertile Ground of Bewilderment
Charles Eisenstein | Jul 7, 2016

[...] When I was growing up, a responsible citizen was one who read the newspapers, held positions on the political issues in currency, and fully participated in the dominant modes of civic and political life. Today (although it may have been true then too) the choices we are offered take the rules and premises of the game for granted, and it is these, about which we are never offered a choice, that are driving the fatal decline of our society.

Beneath the frenzy, many of us sense a vacuousness in the choice of Stay or Remain, the same one that sucks the meaning out of electoral politics as well. Democrat or Republican, Christian Democrat or Socialist, even Marxist parties like Syriza – when they take office they enact the same policies as before. Their differences, while not entirely inconsequential, are mostly minute compared to the range of what is possible. Moreover, public referendum votes against establishment policies are often ignored anyway, as was the case in Greece and as may well happen in Britain too.

So it is with Brexit – almost. Something is different this time. It is significant, although not for the reasons some people (though not my festival audience) think it is.

On the left, Brexit has been framed either as a blow against neoliberalism or a victory for xenophobic right-wing nationalism. Both framings are problematic: the first is over-optimistic, and the second is invidious.

On a practical level, Brexit needn’t be more than a minor hiccup on the onward march of neoliberal globalism. Even if Britain abides by the vote and does leave the EU, perhaps after much delay, the political and financial authorities will probably cobble together a plan that preserves the freedom of capital while continuing the erosion of wages, social services, and the public sphere. Perhaps they will ride the wave of right-wing populism to enact pro-business policies and further dismantle the social welfare system by associating it with the coddling of immigrants, turning the working class against itself. Alternatively or additionally, they can ride the counter-reaction to the vote, associating opposition to free trade policies with xenophobia and racism. They can also exploit the chaos resulting from Brexit as an object-lesson in the consequences of disobeying the elites. The vote will be called “irresponsible,” and responsibility will be associated with complying with the program of the technocrats and functionaries who administer the present system.

As for the xenophobic nationalism frame, to attribute Brexit to xenophobia is to disregard the deep economic and social stressors that fuel both anti-EU sentiment and resentment toward immigrants. If you buy into that narrative, you have to believe that Britain is home to 17 million bigots, ignoramuses, and nutjobs who foolishly sabotage their own economic wellbeing for the sake of exercising their bigoted opinions. (The same, of course, applies to the X million Trump supporters, about whom the same narrative is applied.) Please take note of the tone of this narrative: patronizing and contemptuous, embodying the same rage, dehumanization, and hatred that it attributes to its enemies.

There are in fact very sound reasons to be hostile to the EU [...]

In other words, the middle-aged white Brexit or Trump supporter has legitimate grievances that cannot be dismissed as white entitlement just because things are even worse for people of color. If they feel betrayed by the system, it is because they have been. Look around at the world. We can do much better than this. Everybody knows it. We don’t agree on what to do, but more and more of us have lost faith in the system and its stewards. When right-wing populists blame our problems on dark-skinned people or immigrants, the response they arouse draws its power from real and justifiable dissatisfaction. Racism is its symptom, not its cause.

The Brexit vote was an expression of anti-elitism, pure and simple. Leaders of the mainstream parties, business leaders, entertainment figures, J.K. Rowling, President Obama, rock stars and literati… everyone urged the public to vote Remain, to uphold the status quo. Does defiance of authority mean the defiant need to be reprimanded and put in their place, or does it mean that authority has abused its position?

The Brexit vote was supposed to be one of those inconsequential exercises that legitimize the system by lending it the appearance of real democracy. Something went wrong though – the public voted no when they were supposed to vote yes. While not quite as unexpected as a victory for Donald Trump would be, it still came as a shock to the elites, not because the damage to neoliberalism can’t be easily fixed on a technical level, but because it shows the fragility of their legitimacy. As such, it evokes a panic far beyond what technical considerations would justify.

It is not only the legitimacy of the elites that is fragile, nor just Britain’s economy; it is also the entire financial system: an overleveraged agglomeration of bubbles that will all pop when one pops. Maybe the Brexit vote induces panic because it reminds the financial markets and their administrators that they cannot hold it together much longer. They can’t even buy public allegiance in one of the world’s richest countries. Who knows, perhaps Brexit will start the bubbles popping.

The Brexit vote marks a rare moment of discontinuity, when the usual normalizing narratives falter and a society experiences a fertile and frightening moment of bewilderment. Brexit, though, is a mere foreshadowing of the vertigo that will ensue with the next economic crisis, which will dwarf that of 2008.

To prepare for it, we have to operate on a level much deeper than current politics offers. It is the tacitly assumed narratives lurking beneath conventional political discourse that need our attention. By this I do not mean merely addressing the neoliberal and imperial motives cloaked in the pro-EU language of internationalism, tolerance, and cosmopolitanism.

To illustrate, let me return to the observation I made above: that the blaming of the Leave vote (and Trump, and all the xenophobic know-nothing parties) on ignorance and unenlightened attitudes is “patronizing and contemptuous, embodying the same rage, dehumanization, and hatred that it attributes to its enemies.” Next time you read the news, especially articles enjoining us to take a conventional political position, pay attention for the subtext of “Here is whom you should hate.” The right-wing populists incite hatred and anger at the blacks, the immigrants, the Muslims, the gays, the transgender, the “libtards,” etc. The mainstream liberals stir up outrage against the bigots, the nationalists, the contemptible narrow-minded over-entitled “crazy” (a common adjective) climate-change-denying Bible-thumpers. Further left, the critics of neoliberal imperialism follow the same formula by invoking images of heartless corporate executives, greedy bankers, cowardly political elites, and drone-like bureaucrats and technocrats who should surely know better.

Herein lies a near-universal political formula: identify the enemy, arouse anger and hatred against that enemy, and then defeat the enemy. It is based on this analysis: Cause: bad people. Solution: defeat the bad people. Problem solved. The media, whether news or entertainment, has immersed us in that outlook, which informs everything from action films to the War on Terror. But I am afraid we cannot blame the media either, because it is part of a mindset that is integral to modernity and has roots going back to the first mass societies. It is fundamentally the mindset of war, in which progress consists in defeating the enemy: weeds or locusts, barbarians or communists; germs or cholesterol; gun nuts or traitors. And that mindset rests on a foundation more basic still: the Story of Separation that holds us as discrete, separate individuals in a world of other, in opposition to random forces and arbitrary events of nature, and in competition with the rest of life. Well-being comes, in this story, through domination and control: glyphosate, antibiotics, GMOs, SSRIs, surveillance systems, border fences, kill lists, prisons, curfews…

It is from this story too that neoliberal capitalism sources its power. It depends on the idealization of competition, encoded in “free markets,” as a law of nature and primary driver of progress; on the sanctity of private property (which is a primal form of domination) and, most of all, on exercising control over others through the creation and enforcement of debt. It finds a natural home within the Story of Separation; it is, perhaps, Separation’s culminating expression, threatening as it does the ecological basis of human existence. We cannot change it without letting go of that story in all its dimensions. Part of that is to let go of war mentality in politics, and replace it with compassion.

This doesn’t mean sitting in a room thinking nice thoughts about race-baiters and vulture fund managers, retreating from political engagement into a safe realm of inner work. It is to enact politics from a different place. Our political reflexes are conditioned by a story that is deeper than politics. If we want to produce something other than endless variations of the same result, we have to transcend the customary terms of discourse and examine the false truisms that become transparent only when things fall apart. I am not sure what strategies, tactics, and narratives will come from a compassion-oriented worldview, from a story that holds us as interdependent, interconnected, even inter-existent with all. Various forms of nonviolent direct action, narrative change, and solidarity movements foretell what they might look like, but I think future politics is largely unknowable at the present time when most of us are still deeply conditioned by the Story of Separation. Whatever it is, it will spring from a basic inquiry – the essence of compassion – that must be sincere: “What is it like to be you?”

The bewildering glitch in the matrix that is Brexit has prompted many in Britain to ask, perhaps with some anguish, “Who are we?” It is time to ask that in earnest, which requires stepping outside the usual polarizing discourses in which both sides play the game of find-the-enemy. To my English friends, I would ask, “What kind of England do you want?” Is it one where the forces of racism are suppressed and politically defeated? Or is it one in which the source of racism has been healed? If we want the latter, we have to recognize the conditions that cause it. What is it like to be a racist?

Ordinarily in politics, everyone pretends that they know what to do. Politicians pretend that to voters, who then inhabit and perpetuate that pretense by voting. When do you ever hear a politician, when asked about an issue, say, “I have no idea what to do about it”? Well, I don’t have any idea what to do about Brexit either, but if I have any advice to Brits (and this will apply to all of us even more when the next normal-destroying crisis hits) it would be not to rush too quickly to a position. Instead, abide for a while in a state of openness and curiosity, pursuing the question, “What is it like to be you?” The kind of socioeconomic analysis (neoliberalism etc.) I offered above might help answer that question in a general, theoretical way, but it is no substitute for actually listening to one another’s stories, temporarily free of the pressure of having to find a solution. If the Prime Minister asked my opinion (I’m still waiting for the phone call), I’d say to declare a national month of listening, in which the immigrants, the angry rural pensioners, the bureaucrats, the financial industry workers, listen to each other in small forums, and in which media publications print unslanted stories of the people they have demonized. The goal of that month would not be to figure out what to do. It would be to understand each other better. The goal of the storytelling would not be to make a point. It would be to be heard and to be known. To hear another’s story is to expand oneself. It is an act of intimacy, of connection, and it subverts the ideology that holds us separate. When we take in new stories, we change and grow.

Of course it is unrealistic to expect people to drop their hidden agendas and listen with open ears. Normally our ears are shut, because we think we know. That is why Brexit and the bigger breakdowns it foreshadows are so potent. It shows us that maybe we don’t know, after all. That moment of stumbling, of humility, is precious. It may be that the Brexit vote isn’t a big enough shock to interrupt the onrush of normative political discourse that seeks to make sense of things in familiar terms. Rest assured: bigger shocks are coming.

May 17, 2016

The Epitome of Sustainability

Found this little gem of info on "the epitome of sustainability" - multistrata agroforestry.
Multistrata agroforestry systems go by many names – food forests, edible forest gardens, tropical homegardens, and more. What they have in common is their structure – multiple layers of vegetation, typically one or more layers of trees, with further layers of shrubs, vines, herbaceous species, and often fungi and/or livestock.

These “agroforests” can be at a tiny backyard scale or big enough to cover 50-70% of entire islands. Contemporary commercial examples include coffee and cacao under nitrogen-fixing shade trees. Multistrata systems go back 13,000 years in Java, and today are practiced on an estimated 100 million hectares globally (247 million acres), mostly in the humid tropics. Home-scale systems appear quite viable in cold climates, but models of commercial cold-climate hard to find – in deed development of such systems is one of our goals.

Scientists have called tropical homegardens “the epitome of sustainability” and have identified many benefits of these systems:
  • Multistrata agroforestry systems sequester outstanding amounts of carbon – some as high as 40 tons per hectare per year (t/ha/yr). This compares extremely favorably with often-recommended carbon farming strategies like no-till (0.3 t/ha), “regenerative organic” annual crops (2.3), and managed grazing (0.3). Some even sequester carbon at faster rates than adjacent natural forest!
  • Tropical homegardens have the highest levels of biodiversity of any human land management technique. For example, Mesoamerican homegardens average 348 species per hectares (149/acre).
  • In some cases these systems produce more food than monocultures – sometimes much more! For example, in Brazilian oil palm monocultures, oil yields average 5 t/ha. Polycultures of oil palm, with the addition of fruiting vines, nitrogen-fixing trees, and other elements, produce 8.7 t/ha of oil, plus the additional products!

The source of this quote and the image mashup above are Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates of Paradise Lot blog. They are the guys who have done it. They have years of experience having created or helped create several permaculture food forests. See their 2013 book, for example: Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City

Eric Toensmeier's next book is about carbon sequestration potential of multistrata agroforestry systems.

UPDATE: The new book is already out in March. It's called "The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security". Paul Hawken says the book "describes the foundation of the future of civilization."

March 31, 2016

Where Did Environmentalism [and I] Go Wrong?

I really like the following piece by Atulya K Bingham and I thought I should share. Atulya is a small-time, independently published writer raised in the UK but settled in Turkey. She lives at a remote place on a hill next to the forest in a mud hut she built on her own and a garden she tends herself.

The second half of her article touched a raw nerve inside me and made the tears well up and fall. I felt I could have written it myself. I could not have written it two years ago though, when it was originally published. At that time I had begun to question my path but had not yet experienced the joy that Atulya speaks of in the piece.

The joy of being in a natural space that you have (co)created yourself with conscious awareness. "The space of love", as The Ringing Cedars books call it. I have only just begun to glimpse these moments of wonder and ecstasy that the space offers. Moments such as when I breathed in pollen standing amidst yellow flowers of mustard plants as tall as myself. When I witnessed stalks of wheat begin to swing joyously in the wind as I approached them. When flowers bloomed unexpectedly and the vegetables did well despite the odds. When I felt a sense of oneness with the land and felt like embracing it. When my intuition began to serve me in ways that left me surprised.

Cultivating land, even a small plot, is not always so romantic. But these fleeting moments are worth the hardship. And they are far more meaningful than anything else you could imagine yourself doing. As Atulya says, "you will witness miracles and sorcery and beauty." All it takes is to open yourself up and allow yourself to feel.

Where Did Environmentalism Go Wrong?
by Atulya K Bingham | May 2014

There’s an atmosphere of despair pervading the environmental movement at the moment. And if it's stats you go by, then it’s no wonder. According to National Geographic, more than 80% of Earth’s natural forests have already been destroyed, EIGHTY PERCENT, most of it very recently. 38% of the world’s surface is under threat of desertification and in a recent in-depth NASA study measuring drastic changes to population, climate, water, agriculture, and energy in the 21st century, some sort of collapse in about 15 years is likely. Well, yes, it really doesn't take an environmental scientist to see that if the population continues to explode at its current rate and we have no trees left, we won’t be breathing. No doubt a corporation will produce oxygen and sell it on to the masses at an exorbitant rate. Those that can afford it will have it pumped into their homes, those that can’t will slowly die off. What’s new? That’s the way it already is with drinking water in large parts of the world.

Feeling desperate? Join the club. I’ve been feeling more than a little despair myself, despair mixed with contempt, to be honest. How is it that so much of the world still refuses to even face the issue at hand, I’ve been wondering, never mind act on it? How can people possibly still be bleating about cellulite or the price of petrol or who George Clooney will marry, when their entire existence is in the balance? Is this a type of mass lunacy?

Yet, if I can set my anger aside, the truth is not a question of intelligence. It’s obvious. Humanity is in denial. And that is, in fact, quite normal. In fact, despite living in a mudhut, I'm probably just as much involved in it. Anyone who has lost someone close knows, the first reaction to a terminal prognosis is to pretend it just isn’t happening, because the truth is simply too devastating to contemplate. Everyone simply focuses on the hope that there will be a miracle, or some sudden technological innovation, or perhaps the doctors were wrong. Unfortunately, as I myself have witnessed, denial doesn’t prevent truth from dawning. Terminal patients still die, as we all do, be it today, tomorrow, or in 15 years.

And it is here that I’d like to pause. Because, although this is all true, it is also, as I see it, one of the gravest strategic errors the environmental movement has made since the beginning. With an unwavering fascination in the end of the world, environmentalism has attempted to scare humanity into acting, and we are now seeing just how spectacularly scare tactics have failed. Not that the scare isn’t based on solid foundations, it's more that apparently, scared people are not particularly effective at mobilising. Humanity has been plunged into despair, and so it has buried its head even deeper in the sand of any one of our expanding deserts.

I’ve often thought that environmentalism, for all its railing against consumerism and the materialism that fuels it, is in fact over-obsessed with the material and under-obsessed with the soul, and that the fate of our planet simply cannot be altered without a deeper understanding of why we are sabotaging it. Environmentalism should have taken a leaf out of the book of its far more successful sibling in the ‘ism’ family, capitalism. How did capitalism beat environmentalism? It perused a bit of Freud and worked out what made us tick. It offered a carrot, where the environmentalists, who’ve been all hellfire and brimstone, have offered none. Either we fight off the forces of massive earth-devouring corporations with nothing more than a yaks wool jumper and a couple of placards, or we face certain death. Well thanks for that inspiring choice. Don’t mind me if I ship in a case of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and drink myself into oblivion.

I have blabbered before on the two drives that the human mind finds itself caught between; desire and fear (prodded by the carrot or stick mentioned above). The mind, despite its façade of sophistication, is a primitive, largely reptilian beast. When desire seems easier to attain than fear is to dispel, then the mind weighs up the odds. “What I fear is coming regardless, I may as well grab some of what I want,” it bargains. Environmentalism and its use of the media has unwittingly created a bottomless pit of angst within the human spirit, and I’m sorry, but you can’t save the world on that. To really be able to achieve a miracle (and seeing as I’ve witnessed a few, I view them as entirely possible, though not inevitable) the mind needs to be in a very different place. It needs to feel confident. It needs to be saturated in realistic rather than foundationless hope. And it helps one hell of a lot, if somewhere along the line a nice fat desire is fulfilled. If people will slave away for weeks in miserable jobs merely to possess an iphone, the satisfaction of which lasts less than a month, what might they do for a greater prize? But if there is no prize? Then what are they striving for?

Environmentalism has offered a prize of sorts, but it’s been fairly puritanical about it. The prize is an abstract salvation, which to the average human feels as remote as the Delta Quadrant and as likely as Eldorado. Environmentalism is just like any religion in its complete inability to curb the desires of humanity with a heaven and hell scenario, merely producing a state of guilt among its followers instead.

Now, this isn’t supposed to be a diatribe on the ills of environmentalism, because without the environmental movement our awareness of the issue at hand would be zilch. It is the brave and devoted ecologists in the green movement who have collected the data. It is their protests that have protected the remaining 20% of old natural forests we’re still breathing thanks to. It’s just that if anything at all is to be done, we have to recognise the old way of blame and protest isn’t working.

If this blog has a purpose or a hope or a vision at all, it’s this. I’d like to paint an alternative, and to show the real carrot that capitalism has usurped, the carrot that environmentalism ought to be grabbing back and waving in front of us for all its worth. For me, abandoning consumerism and loving the Earth has nothing to do with virtue.There is no moral highground to be attained, and no point in burdening oneself with guilt for buying a plastic bag or leaving a light on. Every human being, just like every living thing on the planet uses resources, and if humanity can sense the connection it has with the Earth, then the using of resources can be a beautiful exchange.

Truthfully, I didn’t build a mudhut and grow my own beans to save the world, I did it to save myself. Certainly, living simply and in harmony with nature benefits everyone, but no one more than me. And my prize hasn’t been some vague whiff of planetary survival eons from today, it is immediate gratification, something I wasn't actually expecting. If you allow it, the wilderness will grant you the deepest sense of happiness you are ever likely to experience. It's even better than sex, actually. Ah, now I’ve got your attention, haven’t I? Well, it certainly makes your toes tingle, your heart flutter, and lasts significantly longer. And there’s no awkward conversation at breakfast the next day, either. Yes. I will say it again. And again. And again. I have lived here with no partner, no car, no road, at times no power and no water, and they were the most exquisite days of my life. Nothing has bettered it. Not drink, not drugs, not the hallowed ‘relationship’. Job titles, possessions and bank balances are just trash by comparison. The magic that pours out of the dirt can heal anything. The smell of the grass, the winking of any variety of flowers, the chatter of the leaves, the secrets the animals tell, the protection your special space bestows upon you and the peace of mind it brings you, are incomparable. You will witness miracles and sorcery and beauty. You will feel valuable and safe. Anxiety recedes. Confidence grows. Without the petty distractions of the media and retail, your soul blooms into something magnificent and indestructible. You begin to manifest exactly what you want and need, because your mind becomes a vessel of clarity rather than a cloudy swamp of befuddlement. You are alive and you are life. Every single thing that a corporation is trying to sell you is nothing but a fake version of what is out here in the forest, and it’s free. Absolutely free. You need never do a job you hate again.

So if I were you, I’d waste no time. Because if you haven’t felt this, you haven’t lived. Forget the Top Ten places you have to visit and the Top Ten films you have to watch, there’s one thing you should do before you die, and that’s sense the wonder of our planet. Sense who you really are. Sense where you came from and what you are truly capable of. Find the wildman or woman within. Go and camp for a night under the stars. Grow endangered plants on your balcony. Ride your bike through the forest and inhale a little unpolluted air. Because you might die tomorrow. Or maybe in 15 years. And until enough people experience this, there can be no environmentalism, and no one can save anything, because the truth is, most of us have no idea what we’re saving.


February 16, 2016

Subhash Palekar: Farmer to National Treasure

Subhash Palekar (right) listens to natural farming practitioner Samarpal of Bijnor.

Last month I was delighted to learn that Subhash Palekar has been bestowed with a Padma Shri, one of India's highest civilian honours. The award may not be always well deserved but in this case, it is hard to think of a more deserving candidate. Palekar is a farmer-scientist and natural farming crusader. He is also someone who has done the most to mitigate India's greenhouse gas emissions and is least recognised for it.

The news was personally gratifying as I have known him for last five years and follow the practices he developed. From farmer to national treasure, he has had an interesting journey.

Dedication and Propagation

Until three decades ago, Subhash Palekar was no different from any other farmer. He worried about declining productivity of his land despite his following recommendations of agricultural scientists. Rather than feeling helpless like any other farmer would, Palekar devoted the entire next decade to research to figure out on his own a solution to his problem.

For years he studied forests and carried out experiments in his farm to replicate and accelerate the natural processes that take place in a forest. By the end of the decade, he perfected a simple, no-expense method of cultivation that did not require any chemicals. In fact, just as in a forest, his techniques required no external inputs whatsoever. All inputs could be supplied from the land itself or found around it. Still, this 'Zero Budget' method gave tremendous results.

All farmers try to improve upon their practice but few conduct research projects in their farm, formally and rigorously. Fewer still would do what Palekar did next. Over the two decades that followed (1996-2016), he made it his life's mission to share his techniques with fellow farmers around the country without expecting anything in return.

Palekar first tried to propagate his methods through a regional agricultural magazine. Many accepted them wholeheartedly but Palekar was not satisfied with the pace of change. He then took to writing books himself, in several regional languages, describing his techniques. Travelling across Maharashtra and other states, he started training farmers in his methods for free at workshops that lasted from two days to several. The only income sustaining him was earned through the sale of his books, nominally priced so that everyone could afford. Today millions of farmers practice his techniques.

Palekar's methods have gained widespread acceptance because they are easy to adopt and his training sessions include detailed instructions (he actually dictates them word by word!). Other organic / natural farming practices that may be equally effective or even more so have been relatively less successful in gaining widespread acceptance because they often place a lot of demands on the farmer. Some require him to drastically change cultivation practices, others require extensive labour or externally derived inputs. Zero Budget Natural Farming on the other hand has relatively lower barriers to entry.


One thing one quickly comes across after meeting Subhash Palekar or listening to his talks is his passion for the topic despite a mild mannered way of speaking. This also reflects in his writings. At the same time he is not very articulate when speaking in a language (usually English or Hindi) other than his native tongue (Marathi). This is an unfortunate combination and sometimes leads to misunderstandings.

The English language version of the books and his website contain atrocious editing quality. Palekar acknowledges this in the books and refuses to yield to the editor's pen. He argues that the books are meant for farmers and not as literature. One unfortunate outcome is that many in the English speaking world are quick to reject his ideas without understanding them. Therefore little mention exists about his work in the English language media even though vernacular media in South India, especially the TV channels have covered him extensively.

Palekar tends to be a polarising figure even among those who promote organic farming in the country. The Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) - a leading body of organic movement does not acknowledge his work directly anywhere on its website except in the news feed. Even the list of organic farmers in the state of Maharashtra in the website's 'resources' section finds no mention of his work.

This, again in my view arises out of a misunderstanding of Palekar's ideas. In his talks he comes down heavily against agricultural universities for promoting chemical farming. This is understandable. What is less clear to most people is that while promoting his own version of "natural farming" Palekar even criticises promoters of "organic" farming equally strongly. He actually abhors the term organic.

This has to be understood in a context. In the early days of the movement, agricultural universities and government literature on organic farming used to encourage extensive inputs that must be purchased from the market. What Palekar is actually against is this reliance of the farmer on the market. He argues that the corporates and the government are out to conspire to keep exploiting the innocent farmer like they did during the so-called green revolution by promoting chemical fertilisers and hybrid seeds.

This view although far-fetched is not without merit. Palekar is a student of Gandhi and his ideology is strongly rooted in Gandhi's idea of village self-reliance. A core idea in his ideology therefore is that farmer should not rely on any external inputs but create his own. It is his poor articulation abilities that his talks come across as if he is against all organic farming proponents.


There is no patent in Subhash Palekar's name and no company where he serves as chief executive. He did not form an NGO with lofty aims that sought international funding. He never charged high fees for his workshops. There were no protest rallies led by him which demanded end of fertiliser subsidies. No on line petitions were filed either to stop application of harmful pesticides. He did not form a people's movement. Nor did he plead with the government to popularise his natural farming method. He did not spend hours on social media criticising and ridiculing the government, corporates, or the entire human race.

This is not to imply that all of those ways to serve a cause are meaningless. Palekar took a more direct route instead. He reached out to the farmers. Met them in person and trained them in his cultivation practices. Hundreds of thousands of farmers have been trained by him and he continues to spread awareness and hold workshops.

Shared Outcome

Millions today have access to food that is free from chemical contamination. Hundreds of thousands of acre of land has been renewed with organic carbon being returned back into the soil. Soil that was being depleted year after year with chemical inputs is now thriving with untold amount of microbial life - bacteria, fungi, protozoa`and nematodes - that is raising its fertility. India today stands at a privileged position where organic food market is witnessing the highest rate of growth in the world - an astounding 20-22%. Subhash Palekar has a notable role in this.

Climate Crusader

One less well understood benefit of organic farming is its role as carbon sink. When a farmer cultivates land organically the organic content of soil rises. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The amount of carbon that can be sequestered this way is so high that according to The Rodale Institute, "we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices."

If that is true then by helping convert several hundred thousand farmers across the country to organic farming, Subhash Palekar has done the most to mitigate India's greenhouse gas emissions. That he is least recognised for it is reflective of the state of our media and its role as reporter of science.

Born a Sovereign

There's a lesson in Palekar's story more significant than the national award he won. Palekar hails from drought-prone Vidarbha region in Maharastra which holds 21% of the state's population but is responsible for 70% of farmer suicides. Yet he transcended the conditions that were given to him. He achieved this because he focussed on creation rather than criticism, on what is possible rather than what is not.

In this lies a lesson for those who spend their lives in negativism. In feeling helpless and dejected. In hate-mongering on social media and elsewhere. The Ringing Cedars books say that each man is born a sovereign. We have been provided with all the answers inside us. That regardless of our inheritance, our upbringing, the politics, climate, and social circumstance in which we find ourselves, we have been provided with the capacity to transcend them and create a world in which we wish to live. Subhash Palekar is a living embodiment of this idea.

January 12, 2016

Economic Collapse: How to Face it Without Fear

In which I suggest you face collapse not with fear but with understanding. Even reverence. And eventually hope.

Three years ago I gave a talk on collapse. September last year I began telling my friends that we were just weeks or months away from either a single large crash in the world financial markets or a staggered one. Today there's good reason to believe that it is just a matter of days.

For most people collapse is not an easy idea to grasp. They have absolutely no frame of reference and are usually too caught up in everyday struggles to pay attention. I rarely talk about it. When I do bring it up to people who have absolutely no understanding, I usually get two kinds of reactions:
    1. The first kind of people nod agreement about its inevitability but seem completely disinterested. You might as well be talking about a veterinary disease like Bovine Babesiosis. "It may concern someone (I can't imagine who) but certainly does not concern me," their body language seems to imply.
    2. The second category reject the idea outright. "Not possible, not likely to happen," they say. They are not interested in seeing the evidence and have none to offer on their own. They know "for a fact" that the status quo will prevail till eternity just because everybody thinks so too. You are labelled a doom sayer (but they never call themselves sheep).
Sometimes it's a combination of the two. Very rarely, a third category makes an appearance.
    3. Such a person comes to an agreement when faced with the evidence but jumps directly into panic or despair without taking out the time to pause to really understand.
All this is about to change very soon. Collapse is well under way. As the markets, big banks, currencies, institutions, an oil company or two, etc. begin to crash one by one, more people will join category three. That is, they will get into panic mode without pausing to understand why it is happening.

I am writing to reassure you that it is indeed possible to wrap your head around the new emerging reality. It does not take a financial maverick to foresee collapse and it is by no means my discovery. I just saw the patterns emerging before most people simply because I was paying attention to facts and trends - all in public domain, some for decades - which are otherwise ignored by those who dominate the mainstream narrative. It also helps to have an independent mind.

Three years ago (20th Feb 2013) I gave a talk at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi with the title "Unlimited Growth, Climate Change and Notions of Pralaya" (dissolution). One section of my presentation (out of five) was devoted to an analysis that showed the possibility of beginning of collapse in 2015. The slides showed graphs modelling, in just a few short years thereafter, dramatic decline in industrial output, services, food, and population along with an increase in death rates around the same time.

Yes, we are right on track. And yes, I repeat, there's no reason to panic. It's probably too late now to begin to prepare to be in the ideal situation, yet the humble and the wise can still take action that will allow them to face the end of the economy without fear.

The very first and the most important step is to try to understand. And remain patient while you do so. It will take time. Prepare to devote time if you wish to secure your future.

How can one possibly make sense out of behaviour never seen before such as markets crashing like a house of cards, you say? Well, the key guideline when you're trying to understand is to ignore the transient and the detail. Zoom out a bit. Focus on the big picture instead, the fundamentals, the underlying patterns, the unchanging, and the inter-connectedness of the various factors.

I cannot lay out the big picture here. This is not the space to summarise several different concepts for which multiple books have been written. There are numerous ways of framing our current predicament and I do not consider any single one as the most definitive of all.

But there are some ways of framing that are easier to understand and relate. And there are people who have the gift to convey the complex in simple ways. I suggest the following resources.

The Predicament
    Resources-economics frame

      Small is Beautiful by E. F. Schumacher
      Limits to Growth by Meadows et al.
      The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg
      The Third Curve by Mansoor Khan
      The Enemy of Nature by Joel Kovel
      The Enigma of Capital by David Harvey
      The Crash Course by PeakProsperity.com (video series)

    Environmental frame

      The Ringing Cedars of Russia by Vladimir Megre (book series - all nine books)
      Ishmael by Daniel Quinn
      Endgame by Derrick Jensen
      The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes
      Storms of My Grandchildren by James Hansen

      Historical-cultural frame

        Collapse by Jared Diamond
        Reinventing Collapse by Dimitry Orlov
        The Ringing Cedars of Russia by Vladimir Megre (book series - all nine books)
        Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg-Hodge
        The Human Zoo by Desmond Morris

        Moral frame

          The Encyclical by Pope Francis

        The Way Forward
          A guide to living

            The Ringing Cedars of Russia by Vladimir Megre (book series - all nine books)
            The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible by Charles Eisenstein

          Practical advice

            Prosper! by Chris Martenson
            How to Be Alive by Colin Beavan
            The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins
            The Ringing Cedars of Russia by Vladimir Megre (book series - all nine books)


        Yes, that's a lot of books. You do not have read them all. I haven't. In some cases I have read other works by the same author and am familiar with their premise. Choose any you would like to read. Each one is hand picked out of hundreds of books now on collapse (most of them written with Resources-economics frame under 'peak oil' banner).

        If I had to pick one resource out of the above to start on the path of understanding, it would be The Crash Course at PeakProsperity.com. I've admired Chris Martenson's insights and prolific output over the years first on his website and recently on PeakProsperity.com. The Crash Course is a series of videos over 4 hr. in duration that will likely take you an entire day to watch as you research the concepts presented. There is a shorter condensed version too which you can watch afterwards to revise.

        Once again, when you're trying to understand factors through the economics frame, you are not expected to become a financial expert. It is not important to understand the nuances of every single factor involved that is taking us towards collapse. The most immediate ones include but are not limited to oil production, its supply and demand dynamics and the accumulated financial stresses - credit bubbles, national debt, global currencies etc. What's more important is to recognise the fundamentals and the patterns.

        After you begin to understand the crisis by viewing it from more than one frame, you can start reading about the way forward. If financial security is your prime concern, you will find the answers in Prosper! by Chris Martenson. A note of caution is not to jump directly to way forward resources without first understanding the predicament.

        Read Charles Eisenstein and you instantly know he is way ahead of his times. When Eisenstein is looking at something you get the sense that he's not looking at it but through it. Through the patterns and gears underlying that system, thing, event, person whatever it may be. I was fortunate to meet him in Bangalore last year two years ago. I recounted him a story from Hindu Puranas that conveys the notion of unlimited growth leading to climate change and collapse including his own narrative of separation - all through symbols, as such stories do. He told me of similar tales he had heard in other parts of Asia.

        If you would like to read someone closer home pick up Mansoor Khan's book. The veteran film maker is a terrific story teller. He has his own unique lens through which he frames the financial mess we have gotten into for the lay person. He is also a prolific speaker (you will find his talk schedule on his site). Mansoor has been an inspiration and a friend not just through his words but his life choices as well.

        From Fear to Hope

        The Ringing Cedars of Russia book series contain much more than 'a guide to living'. It's hard to describe these books. They are most unusual of all in the list. In fact, one could argue that they are more than mere books as they have inspired a transition movement in their county of origin and beyond.

        The books have several aspects to them that are unique. One of them is that in contrast to the books with resources-economics frame, The Ringing Cedars books fill you with immense joy and hope for the future of humanity. And if you're able to grasp its essence, you gain a reverence for the order of things. Reverence even for collapse.

        If I had known they had sold 12 millions copies I may not have picked them up as I tend to be biased against all things super popular. But I did not know. It's best to approach these books without preconceived notions, even ones I described above. Needless to say I cannot recommend them highly.

        January 01, 2016

        What I did during the Paris Climate Conference...

        All photographs shot on 06-Dec-2015

        Each seed and sapling carries within it the possibility of hundreds more. In less than two months the plants will begin delivering fresh produce free from chemical inputs while restoring carbon back into the soil. Meanwhile you get to witness the greatest miracle of creation.

        Anyone can do this.