May 24, 2017

A Relation of Love

"When human love and the love of the planet join forces, Edens are created" says Atulya Bingham.

If I were into species research, I would declare the discovery of Atulya Bingham as that rare new species that the world desperately needs. If I were a birder she would be that exotic bird whose sight delights every time one sees her. I almost feel kinship with her.

She is rare because she writes about nature in a way no one else does. Until recently, Atulya lived alone on a secluded spot on mountain in a mud hut she made herself. What is so special about that, one might ask. After all, so many people in the past have lived in nature, sometimes in complete seclusion, even in the wild, and have discovered the joy and peace it brings to one's life.

I recently posted videos of a successful businessman who gave up his business to restore a large parcel of degraded land, an accomplished sports personality who gave up her career to respond to her lifelong yearning for life in nature, and a medical doctor who gave up the rat race and city comforts to live and work on a farm.

Each of them have grasped what Atulya calls the magic of nature but only intuitively and partially. None of them, to the best of my knowledge, have been assisted by direct knowledge of what happens when one lives on the land in a certain way, as has been the case with her.

Atulya Bingham has understood the magic of nature because she held a relation of love with the land with conscious awareness of it being a living entity that responds back with love and magic that bestows protection on you and helps you realise your aspirations.

This knowledge is contained in the Ringing Cedars book series. The books have been super popular in Russia but have met limited success with the English translation. When I came across Atulya's writing for the first time, I couldn't stop, and strongly suspected that she has read the books. It turned out she has indeed. [See UPDATE added on 26-May]

In her most recent piece, she travels to Portugal and describes an eco-community project known as Tamera. Tamereans have done some wonderful work on what is sometimes boringly called "watershed management", technical jargon for practices that conserve water over large areas of land. To the readers accustomed to seeing only a world of "problems" and "solutions", Atulya briefly describes the physical attributes of the project but then talks about something more important:

But hold on there! The water solution isn’t actually the solution.

Now I know people love to geek out on these types of solutions. But to obsess over the lakes and the swales, to focus only on the most obvious physical structures of Tamera’s landscape is to revert back to the dam-building engineer mentality. It’s missing the point. I'd go as far as to say, after my own experiences on Mud Mountain, without Tamera's founding principles, it wouldn't even work in the same way. Because, the Earth is not a machine, and it’s not something to be solved. It’s a responsive organism.

What are those principles?

When I sat at one of the water retention lakes’ banks, it hit me. I hugged my knees under a pine tree watching dragonfly wings shimmer, butterflies flitting overhead, birds slipping so close they almost touched me. And I wept. I was suddenly back on Mud Mountain, in a space of beauty and love. Because this is how it was on my land too. When humans love the earth they live upon, when they truly see each part of the ecosystem as equal and valuable, when they build a non-violent relationship with it, something magical occurs. It’s alchemy. And nature becomes something else. Wild animals scuttle about with a relaxed confidence that is palpable. Flowers bloom. Trees bear fruit. And the ground oozes healing. It is this type of environment that makes anything possible. Life burgeons from deserts. Balance is restored in a matter of years. Miracles occur.

Tamera’s water experts say they can create their scenario anywhere in the world. When you see Tamera, when you move away from a screen and live it, it’s obvious it can be done anywhere, though Tamerans would be the first to agree that the water retention lakes are the least of it.

Who knows what life really is. But one thing is for sure, it thrives not only on water, but on connections, relationships and love. Oh how obvious this is when you've lost something you love! Everything responds to care, respect and attention; be it human, animal or plant. When human love and the love of the planet join forces, Edens are created.

Spaces like Tamera show the structures of urbanity, with their conveniences and comforts for what they are: Barren, love-starved, polluted, ugly, noisy hell holes. After four months in what feels like exile from Mud Mountain, I simply cannot fathom how people stand it. It’s hideous. It’s banal. It’s soul-destroying. How could anyone live in that and not feel depressed? It’s a complete and utter excommunication.

As the birds of Tamera chirped in delicious excitement of yet another day alive, I remembered what I had to do. I remembered what the point was. Because I’d lost it there for a moment.

My space. The Earth. Eden. I must co-create it again. ​​​​​Because there's nothing else like it.

UPDATE 26-May: I should add that the knowledge Atulya acquired through the books was of course confirmed through her personal experience. She first came across the books when she found herself living alone in a tent on the land and told me that she would "never have read or believed the the Ringing Cedars had I not been in that situation. It completely changed how I approached the space." And "many of the things the critics say are unbelievable, I have actually witnessed with my own eyes." She will describe these experiences in her forthcoming book. Sample this blog post about her experience on, what she calls, the 'Mud Mountain': The Lizards Dance

May 13, 2017

The Blueprint

Tom is a medical doctor in New Zealand who lives with his wife Sarah, an illustrator, and their toddler daughter Neesa in a tiny cabin on a farm. Until recently they lived in a large three-bedroom house, trapped, like many others in the cycle of working hard just to be able to pay off the rent or the monthly loan instalment. This six-minute video goes into why they moved to the farm and captures a slice of their life.

I really like the insight Tom shares in the end.

Select transcript with added emphasis:
I guess, in theory we have no security, there's nothing legal about living here. But. Somehow that feels completely fine. I feel trusting, the way we're choosing to live. Try and learn how to live more in relationship. Rather than, it's just us, we gotta make our money, we gotta have our walls tight to have security. And... maybe there's another way of being secure through being really embedded in our web of community.

There's a lovely poem that talks about we don't have to be good, we don't have to walk a 100 miles on our knees repenting in a desert. We just have to do what the soft animal of our body loves. I really like that. I really like that.

For me, this turns out to be what I love. And I have a suspicion that this is actually the blueprint. And there's some thing when people get to it - everybody would want to live this way. I suspect. But. It might be a really long journey for some folks to get to that knowing.

April 29, 2017

David Bamberger: Love of The Land

In the 1960's David Bamberger owned a successful fried chicken business with over 1600 outlets in the U.S. (For perspective, there are less than 400 KFC's in India today.) Then he decided to sell off his business and put the capital into buying some 5500 acres of the most degraded land he could find in Texas, in order to restore it. Fifty years later, the once overgrazed and bone dry land is completely restored. It is flowing with streams and springs and is a habitat for over 200 species of birds.

In this beautiful video portrait Bamberger says he inherited his love of nature from his mother. Another influence was a childhood lived among the Amish.

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 stranded 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.