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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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Transforming life on our home planet, perennially

book coverEd. note: This piece is the first contribution in the new book The Perennial Turn: Contemporary Essays from the Field, ed. by Bill Vitek and published as a free ebook by New Perennials Publishing. 

For those who are willing to face the multiple, cascading crises that humans have created, one task is analysis: How did we get here? In the 200,000 years of Homo sapiens, what have been key thresholds of systemic change?

A good case can be made for agriculture, which the polymath scientist Jared Diamond (1987) called “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” Three decades later, historian Yuval Noah Harari (2015, p. 77) called the Agricultural Revolution “history’s biggest fraud.” When we started taking control of animals’ lives and breaking the soil to produce energy-rich grain, we intervened in ecosystems in ways we could not predict or control, to the detriment of many organisms, including humans.

With nearly eight billion people on the planet, we aren’t going back to hunting and gathering. But around the world, often under the banner of agroecology, people are using modern science and traditional knowledge to develop ways of farming that are less ecologically and socially destructive.

Over the past four decades, one of the most promising projects in sustainable agriculture has been Natural Systems Agriculture (perennial grains grown in mixtures rather than annuals grown in monocultures) at The Land Institute. The institute’s Ecosphere Studies program nurtures and explores this perennial thinking through research and education based in an ecological worldview that challenges the dominant industrial model defining contemporary ways of feeding bodies and minds. This essay outlines our approach, including a diagnosis of our agricultural past and present in a broader ecospheric context, which resonates with other ecocentric projects while building on the lessons learned on the Kansas prairie that is home to The Land Institute.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 “The Necessary Alternative to Growth is Degrowth”

A Review of Degrowth by Giorgos Kallis (2018)

In Europe, “degrowth” is actually a movement, while in the US it is barely mentionable in polite society. To question “growth” would be the death knell for any serious politician. So what’s going on here? We live in the same world and face the same reality of “limits-to-growth” – a very popular concept in the US 50 years ago.

Well, since Earth Day, 1970, there has been a lot of “water under the bridge”, to be sure, but more to the point “oil in the pipeline”, especially in petro-states like the US. We may not be as dependent on oil as the other two big petro-states – the Saudis and the Russians – but it still skews our politics and our culture far more than most people realize. But Europe is not so well endowed with fossil fuels. That’s exactly the point of reading the European scholar Giorgos Kallis on degrowth. He’s not sidelined for painting a more sober view of the 21st century:

“Either we find a way to stop those who are plundering the earth and share the limited planet that we have, or we will enter a New Dark Age of humanity… There will never be enough until we share what there is… Degrowth marks a ruthless critique of the dogma of economic growth”.

Note the utopian element, which Kallis readily acknowledges: It’s not just about long-term economic contraction – that we must learn to live within our planetary means. That will happen one way or another anyway. He calls us to do all we can to avoid both catastrophe and plutocracy – the brutal dog-eat-dog and win-lose scenarios. Think of his solution as “resilience” plus “sharing”. And forget about the fiction of “green growth”.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

A Small Farm Future: Review

Chris Smaje has been a lecturer in sociology and is now a small farmer and writer, living in England. This book springs from his blog of the same name, and as posts from that blog have run on Resilience, many readers will already be familiar with Smaje and the kind of things he talks about. The book’s subtitle summarizes it fairly well: “Making the case for a society built around local economies, self provisioning, agricultural diversity and a shared Earth.”

Perhaps I should begin by noting that since I have been following Smaje on this site, and was already in agreement with his theses before I read his book, some might say I’m biased. There was very little I disagreed with; however, there was quite a bit I didn’t know. I’m glad I have a paper copy, as I will be rereading it and using it in discussion.

Before getting into the parts of the book, I will say something about the level of diction; it requires continuous attention to follow the thread of often complex argument. This is not a book to read over a long period, or while doing other things.

In the first chapter, Smaje delineates “ten crises”: population, climate, energy, soil, stuff, water, land, health and nutrition, political economy, and culture (yes, it’s quite a long chapter). In the course of discussing these issues he makes the case that we can’t just stumble on with business as usual—that won’t be possible much longer. Then in the rest of the book he argues that a small farm future is the best of possible responses to these crises, the best way to negotiate a future that avoids the inequality that plagues us today, and often has in the past, as well as to repair the ravages inflicted on our only planet by neoliberal capitalism and industrial farming. Yes–he takes on capitalism.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Economic Superorganism: Excerpt

For the last 200 years, increasing global energy consumption has translated to increasing global GHG emissions. While this might not be the case in the future, how do we consider the conflict between our instincts to react to immediate circumstances (i.e., consume more energy now, grow the economy now) and the political will to choose a different path based upon a future goal (i.e., limit human-caused climate change)? As Daniel Dennett asks in Freedom Evolves:

Where does the oomph come from to overrule our own instincts? Tradition would say it comes from some psychic force called willpower, but this just names the phenomenon and postpones explanation. How is “willpower” implemented in our brains?64—Daniel Dennett (2003)

Psychologists and economists use the term discount rate to describe how people make decisions, within our brains, when there are multiple options that present benefits at different points in time. Do I want one dollar now or two dollars ten years from now? Largely driven by natural selection and perhaps some idea similar to the maximum power principle, humans tend to have “steep” discount rates indicating that we tend to select rewards that come sooner rather than later.

Dennett uses the story of Ulysses and the Sirens in Homer’s The Odyssey to demonstrate the link between willpower and the idea of the discount rate. The goddess Circe warns Ulysses that during his journey home, he will sail past the Island of the Sirens. The Sirens appear to have exquisite beauty and a sweet song that lures sailors to their shores. But on approach, the sailboats crash on the rocks, and the sailors remain on the island, unwilling to leave as they listen to the song of the Sirens until they wither and die.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 A Small Farm Future: Excerpt

Culture Crisis

This is the crisis of modernist culture – the ability to create ourselves as individuals and protect ourselves from the vicissitudes of the non-symbolic world, set against the ability to alienate ourselves as individuals and offload the consequences of our self-creation onto other people (including future people) and the non-symbolic world. In view of the other crises we face, the only convincing way I can see of transcending this crisis is to start making ourselves as individuals in less materialised ways that are more engaged with the Creation, the non-symbolic world, around us. The small farm future I describe is the most convincing form I can see that transcendence taking.

One reason the prospect of a small farm future sits awkwardly with modern culture is that it flouts a sense of progress. Small-scale agriculture was what people did in the past, but we’ve now progressed beyond it. It’s hard to shake off this view because when we think about history through the lens of modernity we tend to use spatial metaphors with binary moral overtones. We move forwards, upwards or onwards, we lift people up out of poverty, we support progressive ideas and we don’t look back – but when we do, we see backward societies where a lot of people farmed.

In one sense, such objections are easily dealt with. A small farm future needn’t be the same as a small farm past. We don’t have to go back. But that’s not quite good enough, because the culture of modernity involves a sense of radical rupture with the past, and a wholly new destiny for humanity – a destiny that’s regarded as better than everything that went before it, largely because people quit farming, left the countryside and got busy with their modernist life projects.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 A simple way to understand what’s happening … and what to do

The world seems to be coming apart at the seams. It’s critical to understand why, so that we can avoid the worst and find the best responses so as to move toward the environmentally and socially healthy future we want. It turns out that there’s a relatively simple frame for gaining such understanding.

This straightforward explanation proposes that the main force driving societal change is available energy—an assertion that’s backed by a substantial amount of scientific research. Those with the patience and curiosity to investigate further can find other contributing factors to societal evolution—technology, investment, laws regarding property rights, histories of injustice, and more, many of which entail complex systemic interactions that take time to tease apart and comprehend mentally. These are important. But not as important as energy.

Energy is necessary in order for any organism to do anything whatsoever. For humans, food is energy that powers labor. But, in addition, people long ago learned how to harness energy from fire, water, and wind. Using firewood, paddlewheels, and sails, we built agrarian societies with irrigation systems, cities, cathedrals, mills, and seagoing ships, and created some pretty great art, music, and literature along the way. People also used energy from various sources to engage in wars and conquests, and to enslave millions of others in order to steal the fruits of their forced labor. In addition, humans deforested enormous regions to harvest firewood, and ruined millions of acres of soil with unsustainable farming methods.

When humans started using fossil fuels, a couple of centuries ago, they gained access to millions of years’ worth of solar energy that nature had gathered, stored, and transformed into energy sources that were far superior, at least over the short term, to firewood. It was a game-changing moment.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Who is “we”?

Has oil peaked?

Last month, the world’s 4th largest oil company—BP—predicted that the world will never again consume as much petroleum as it did last year. So, have we finally hit peak oil? And if so, what does that mean for our economy and our world?

There was fierce controversy in the first decade of this century over claims by petroleum geologists and energy commentators that peak oil was imminent (I was a figure in that debate, writing several books on the topic). Most of those early claims were based on analysis of oil depletion and consequent supply constraints. BP, however, is talking about a peak in oil demand—which, according to its forecast, could fall by more than 10 percent this decade and as much as 50 percent over the next 20 years if the world takes strong action to limit climate change.

Source: PeakOilBarrel.com; production in thousands of barrels per day.

Numbers from the US Energy Information Administration’s Monthly Review tell us that world oil production (not counting biofuels and natural gas liquids) actually hit its zenith, so far at least, in November 2018, nearly reaching 84.5 million barrels per day. After that, production rates stalled, then plummeted in response to collapsing demand during the coronavirus pandemic. The current production level stands at about 76 mb/d.

Many early peak oil analysts predicted that the maximum rate of oil production would be achieved in the 2005-to-2010 timeframe, after which supplies would decline minimally at first, then more rapidly, causing prices to skyrocket and the economy to crash.

Those forecasters were partly right and partly wrong. Conventional oil production did plateau starting in 2005, and oil prices soared in 2007, helping trigger the Great Recession.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The End of Oil is Near, or Maybe Not

The cover of the September/October 2020 issue of Sierra magazine states “The End of Oil is Near”.  The corresponding story “The End of Oil?” was paralleled with a recent segment on Democracy Now.  I think that is wishful thinking.  To the extent that oil demand goes down in the future, it will go down because people can’t afford oil distillates at the price producers need to produce the corresponding oil.

The “The End of Oil?” article describes weak oil demand in recent years although it should be stated that global oil consumption increased over 5 million barrels/day from 2015 to 2019.  A major factor for weak oil demand growth in recent years is the increasing level of inequality in the U.S. and world.  There is an increasing population that can’t afford to buy oil distillates, or the devices that use them.  Oil distillates offer the ability to avoid manual physical effort which people tend to select when they can afford to.

“The End of Oil?” article emphasized the increase in global oil production in recent years.  Most of that production increase was associated with unconventional oil resources such as shale oil in the U.S. and oil sands in Canada.  The problem with those unconventional oil resources is that they are considerably more expensive to produce compared to conventional oil.  Conventional oil production is declining over much of the globe which has forced oil companies to move to unconventional resources.

The author describes oil majors, like ExxonMobil and Chevron, as getting into the shale oil business in recent years.  That is not a wise business decision but due to the lack of new conventional resources to exploit.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…


A letter to real power: a letter to us

When I heard that Culture Declares Emergency was organizing a series of ‘Letters to Power’, I thought to myself: “Rupert, you should probably write one”. You see, I have spent much of my life attempting to talk to, persuade, even beg those with power – our elected leaders, heads of banks and businesses, big organisations or media companies, for example. I have written many, many letters to power before.

Though to be frank, it’s been largely pointless; while some appear to listen, most fail to hear and even more refuse to act.

Trying once again felt a bit like bashing my head against a brick wall. I felt my enthusiasm for the project draining away.

But then I stopped for a minute and really thought about power. Especially in the context of these last three tumultuous years.

I started to re-assess my assumption about who this letter would be directed to. When I looked up the dictionary definition – “the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events” – and I recalled the way the world has changed since 2018, it became clearer where the power really is.

With us, the people.

We were the ones who, earlier this year, initiated precautionary action when, at least in the UK, our government was clearly going down a different, deadly, route of (non-) response to the Covid crisis.

We were the ones who supported our family, friends and neighbours with countless good deeds during lockdown, and who stood in public solidarity with the NHS and key workers.

We were the ones who questioned, and continue to question, the motives of our rudderless governments in their stance on coronavirus.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Could Cover Crops Help Fight Global Food Insecurity?

Could Cover Crops Help Fight Global Food Insecurity?

Cover crops are grown to benefit the soil, not for harvest. Examples of cover crops can include peas, winter rye, sorghum and barley. The use of cover crops allows farmers to protect their soil before and after they harvest annual crops so that the ground is always covered. Cover crops are a sustainable technique, as they build healthy soil and conserve water, but could they help fight food insecurity?

According to experts, 26.4 percent of the world’s population faces moderate to severe levels of food insecurity, a percentage that amounts to 2 billion people. Global food insecurity is largely concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the rates are determined by factors such as income inequality, food prices and food distribution. Many food-insecure places are affected by droughts and dry seasons. The utilization of cover crops in food-insecure areas may help mitigate the effects of climate change, such as drought and extended dry seasons.

Environmental Protection

Building up organic matter in the soil is an integral part of protecting waterways since nitrogen and phosphorus runoff is the main contributor to water pollution and algal blooms. Utilizing cover crops can provide agricultural communities with long-term protection, building up healthy soil that is more resilient in the future. Additionally, certain types of cover crops do not require tillage, helping keep carbon in the ground. In some climates, farmers may also harvest cover crops without removing the roots, diversifying their operation while also protecting the ecosystem.

Current environmental disasters in food-insecure countries, such as the desert locust in West Africa and parts of India, are a result of climate change. Extractive farming methods, like tilling, only exacerbate the effects of climate change. Many farming methods rely on fossil fuels and technology to operate, a luxury that many communities do not have, and one that is not a sustainable solution. Cover cropping offers significant environmental protection, without reliance on external inputs.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Twenty Questions that Will Make you Rethink Trade

Twenty Questions that Will Make you Rethink Trade

We live in the age of trade. Trade, supported by an infrastructure of criss-crossing cargo ships, mega-ports, and an endless armada of trains and trucks plying the railways and highways, has become the foundation of the modern global economy. (And let’s not even talk about the virtual infrastructure of banking and finance that undergirds all this real-world activity.) In fact, we’ve taken trade so far that the actual transactions are routinely irrational from an ecological or an energetic perspective, let alone a common-sense perspective. For example, consider the 10,000-mile cod. Scottish fishermen catch cod in the North Atlantic. Now, the fish could be consumed fresh in Scotland, but no… First, the poor piscine provisions are deep-frozen into codsicles, which are then shipped to China, thawed, filleted, packaged, re-frozen, and shipped back to Scotland for eventual consumption. The energy balance for codsicle processing is indefensible, as the calories spent to run the fish through this globalized Rube Goldberg machine immeasurably outstrip the calories gained from eating them.

OK, let’s pull back from the criticism for a moment. Trade isn’t all bad. Any college economics student can regurgitate a neoliberal rehashing of David Ricardo’s early-19th-century treatise of comparative advantage—trade can create benefits for a person or nation willing to engage in it. Researchers even hypothesize that trade was an advancement unique to Homo sapiens that allowed us to outcompete the Neanderthals. The thinking is that, through trade, we developed both specialization of labor and new technologies, while Neanderthals (who apparently were reluctant to trade) failed to develop either. But something’s gone awry with the idea of exchanging goods and services.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Doom or denial: Is there another path?

Doom or denial: Is there another path?

I was recently asked to comment on a dustup between some members of Extinction Rebellion (see Thomas Nicholas, Galen Hall, and Colleen Schmidt, “The Faulty Science, Doomism, and Flawed Conclusions of Deep Adaptation”) and Jem Bendell, founder of Deep Adaptation (see his “Letter to Deep Adaptation Advocate Volunteers about Misrepresentations of the Agenda and Movement”). Since the issues raised in this controversy seem relevant to readers of Resilience.org, I thought it might be worthwhile to accept the invitation and weigh in.

For those not familiar, Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation (DA) takes as its starting point the judgment that, because of unfolding human-induced climate impacts, the near-term utter collapse of society is nearly inevitable. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is an activist movement that uses civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid climate tipping points that would lock in trends leading ultimately to ecological and social collapse. In simplistic terms, you could say that Deep Adaptation is about accepting and coping with the reality of climate-driven collapse while Extinction Rebellion is about acting to prevent it.

The nub of the controversy is this: some folks involved in Extinction Rebellion think that Bendell is being too fatalistic, thereby discouraging his followers from taking actions that might still save civilization and global ecosystems. Bendell, in his response, accuses his critics of ignoring evidence and misrepresenting his views.

I don’t propose to plunge into the weeds, adjudicating each point raised in each essay. Instead, I prefer to step back and offer my own interpretation of the evidence, and then discuss the subtext of the dispute.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Should No-Till Farming Be Adopted by All to Help the Earth?

Should No-Till Farming Be Adopted by All to Help the Earth?

Farmers around the world are looking for innovative methods to save water, reduce costs and produce higher yields. No-till farming is a popular practice to improve soil quality and reduce soil erosion. Instead of using a plow to disturb soil before planning, it employs a drill or alternative equipment to grow crops without breaking the ground.

Is no-till growing as great as it’s made out to be? Should it be adopted by all to help the Earth? The answer is yes and no. What it really comes down to is the type of no-till farming, and whether it is being used in collaboration with other environmental conservation practices.

In the United States, most no-till cultivation is conventional and uses a drill to plant monocultures like corn and soybeans. This method actually requires more herbicides than regular tillage.

However, there is another type of no-till farming that depends more on supporting the natural ecosystem and minimizing disruption to the soil. Regenerative agriculture is all about returning carbon to the ground instead of farming it out.

Excessive tilling harms soil and causes all sorts of issues, including waterway pollution, nutrient loss and releasing carbon into the atmosphere. If more farmers instituted no-till growing in conjunction with other erosion control methods, the environmental impact of agriculture would be much less.

What Is Tillage?

In conventional agriculture, farmers use a plow to break up soil 8-12 inches down to prepare the land for planting. If you compare this practice to how you ready raised beds for a garden, you might think breaking up the soil would make it easier to plant crops, including vegetables and grains. However, this releases large amounts of carbon, disrupts vital microorganisms in the ground and causes soil erosion.

How No-Till Works

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The Cultural Preparation for Crisis

The Cultural Preparation for Crisis

Coronavirus is a foretaste of the future challenges to come. We have been offered a wake-up call with supermarkets having empty shelves and being forced to change the routine. We will need more resourcefulness, capacity for divergent thinking, and self-initiative in future events related to climate change and economic slowdown.

As it is too late to sign insurance once you had an accident, similarly, culture is something that we need to hone well in advance before we realize that we need it urgently.

What is culture? It is this invisible force in our heads. We do not see it but we see the results of it. And people from outside see it more clearly then the ones inhabited by it. The culture makes us interpret events in certain way and choose certain solutions. It makes us prioritize some activities over others. It influences our ideas about what to pursue to be happy even though it may lure us into wrong directions. It decides how we shape human relations. It makes us more prone to have certain ideas rather than others. For example, the focus on progress and technology rather than preventive health is part of the current culture.

We are shaped by the economic system we are part of. It generates and reinforces a culture that is adapted to its functioning.

In the times of new challenges, we need to develop a new culture to be able to survive. This is what Rebecca Solnit has observed about catastrophes such as a hurricane. Their way of being adapts spontaneously to the situation. We have it in our instincts.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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