Wednesday, December 30, 2009


I've been behind on reading the blogs that I follow (as is often true). One of them is The Archdruid Report, a blog that I wrote about last year. (See my post of 8/5/08.)

JMG, the Archdruid, was on part three of a series. So I would have some idea of what he was talking about, I skimmed through the first two parts. Part Two stopped me. It was focused on a critique of systems theory. If you've been reading this blog lately, you probably know I love systems theory. I just wrote a post to that effect. (See 'Systems', 12/14/09.) In his post, the Archdruid was talking about appropriate technology and having flashbacks to the 70s. "...I half expected to see a circle of scruffy longhairs sitting on pillows around the latest issue of Coevolution Quarterly, excitedly discussing the latest innovations from Zomeworks and the New Alchemy Institute." Well, that certainly describes where I was at in those days.

So what went wrong? I think that we could certainly use a dose of appropriate technology these days. JMG goes on to cite a bunch of beliefs of the time and then says: "A formidable body of thought backed those conclusions, and the core of that body of thought was systems theory. ... systems theory argued that complex systems--all complex systems-–shared certain distinctive traits and behaviors, so that insights gained in one field of study could be applied to phenomena in completely different fields that shared a common degree of complexity. It had its weaknesses, to be sure, but on the whole, systems theory did exactly what theories are supposed to do-–it provided a useful toolkit for making sense of part of the universe of human experience..." BUT "As popular theories sometimes do, though, it became associated with a position in the cultural struggles of the time, and as some particularly unfortunate theories do, it got turned into a vehicle for a group of intellectuals who craved power."

Yes, it turns out that this isn't really a critique of systems theory, it's a critique of some systems theorists. "Such leading figures in the movement as Jay Forrester of MIT and Aurelio Peccei of the Club of Rome agreed that humanity's impact on the planet had become so great that methods devised for engineering and corporate management-–in which, not coincidentally, they were expert-–had to be put to work to manage the entire world. ... the Club of Rome followed up The Limits to Growth [a very influential book with an ecological model] with a series of further studies, all basically arguing that the problems outlined in the original study could be solved by planetary management on the part of a systems-savvy elite." The result? "The Reagan revolution of 1980 saw the opposition seize the upper hand, and the systems movement was among the big losers. ... What made this implosion all the more ironic is that a systems analysis of the systems movement itself, and its relationship to the wider society, might have provided a useful warning. Very few of the newborn institutions in the systems movement were self-funding; from prestigious think tanks to neighborhood energy-conservation schemes, most of them subsisted on government grants, and thus were in the awkward position of depending on the social structures they hoped to overturn. That those structures could respond homeostatically to oppose their efforts might, one would think, be obvious to people who were used to the strange loops and unintended consequences that pervade complex systems."

What is clear to me in reading this is the problem wasn't at all with systems theory, it was with people who wanted to use the theory to get power. If you read the above, it feels like these people didn't really understand systems thinking, just the little bit that they thought would benefit them. The Archdruid is talking about those who wanted to make change from the top down and not those of us that want to create change by building from the bottom up. Not that the kickback hasn't effected lots of us as well. As JMG says, "Unfortunately that reaction slammed the door on resources that might have made the transition ahead of us less difficult."

I've condensed the Archdruid's post and left out a lot. It's worth reading in full--including, if you have time, the various comments people have made. A couple of the commentors mention sustainability and permaculture as the movements closest to systems theory now, and wonder how those movements can avoid the mistakes made by systems theorists, especially since some of what they propose may not be that well liked by the powers that be--or even much of the general population.

I would say we need to pay attention to four things: 1) Start small, slow, and simple. (See my post of 12/24/09 on 'Permaculture Principles' and notice the principles I put out as the last two.) 2) Build from the bottom up. Talk with people, find those who think this stuff is interesting and work with them, and find commonalities with others, and build on those. 3) Take the time to listen to others, and then take the time to explain yourself, slowly and gradually, to them. And 4) Don't attract attention. If someone does pay attention, let them think you are a harmless crank. You're talking about feeding people and saving the world. Don't let them think you are talking about creating problems for them or interfering with their way of life--because that isn't our goal, although it may be a biproduct of what we see coming.

Above all, our goal can't be to use all this good stuff to gain wealth, or power, or fame. We need to see ourselves as just part of the process--and either everyone will benefit or perhaps we should question why we are doing it.

There are a few things I didn't agree with in the Archdruid's post. The biggest is the line: "Nowadays, the only people who pay attention to systems theory are specialists in a handful of obscure fields..." On the other hand, maybe it's just as well if people believe that.

Quote of the Day: "Set aside the hubris that convinced too many systems theorists that they ought to manage the world, and systems theory itself is an extremely effective toolkit of ideas and practices, and a good many of the things that moved in harmony with systems theory – 1970s appropriate tech being a fine example – are well worth dusting off and putting to use right now. At the same time, though, the process that excluded them needs to be understood, and not just because the same process could repeat itself just as easily with some new set of sustainability initiatives. The homeostatic behavior of complex systems also casts an unexpected light on one of the major conundrums of contemporary life, the location of political power in industrial society..." - John Michael Greer

Monday, December 28, 2009


I am currently in the middle of a reading jag. Work has been quiet, I am commuting by train rather than bike, and I am currently off from work for the holidays. It means I have a lot of time to read and so I am. I am reading books on ecology, soil science, systems thinking, social transformation, Buddhism, you name it... So expect a lot of book reviews in the upcoming weeks.

Jim is an interesting guy that I am getting to know. He has a scientific background and wide
ranging interests (though a lot of it is focused on grazing and soil), so when I saw him with a
book a while ago, I asked him what he was reading. The book that he showed me was Threshold by Thom Hartmann. I hadn't heard of Thom Hartman, though apparently he's written a lot of books and is a radio personality. When I looked the book up in the library catalog it had a review attached that claimed "What begins as skillful (and scary) prognostications about climate change's impact devolve into an unfocused mishmash..." It made it sound very new agey, but what the heck.

Hartmann begins the book by stating he sees us at three 'thresholds': an ecological crisis, an
economic crisis, and a population crisis. He then claims that what brought us here were four
mistakes: 1) The belief that we are separate from nature, 2) The belief that our economic system is 'divine' and separate from us, 3)The belief that men should run the world and women are their property, and 4) The belief that 'the best way to influence people is through fear rather than through the power of love, compassion, or support.' (So far the only thing I would challenge is belief 3 which I think should be extended to include all cases where a group of people are defined as superior to other people--whites over people of color, heterosexuals over queer folk, Christians over nonChristians, etc, etc, as well as the stratifications of economic inequality.)

The introduction to the book takes place in Darfur where Hartmann discusses Maslow's hierarchy of needs (see my post of 9/2/08) and posits what he calls Maslow's Threshold--before we can move forward we need to at least make sure that everyone's Physiological and Safety Needs are met.

Hartmann then goes into depth discussing each of the three 'thresholds' and four 'mistakes'
outlined two paragraphs above, devoting a chapter to each of these. He sees our industrial system as resembling cancer (an insight I've had) and talks about the need for a 'circular and sustainable way of life'. He states that "those cultures that most embrace the largest number of their people in an egalitarian and democratic way... are the ones that have the highest quality of life." He notes "Every culture in the past that experienced the cataclysmic consequences of its dominator... behavior and survived went on to transform itself into a cooperator... culture." And he sites studies that show "...that animals will always choose democracy over despotism..." (In other words, the group, not some individual animal, decides.) He concludes this section by stating: "Those who advocate a dog-eat-dog... approach to economics and governance are advocating, essentially, cancer in our body politic. They are ignoring the surrounding environment, which demands a balanced, homeostatic, and altruistic culture." (Sounds good to me.)

The next section of the book focuses on some alternatives, looking at the Danish state as an example of a place that gets it right; contrasting the Maori culture which, Hartmann claims, used up all its resources on hunting everything to extinction and had descended into cannibalism, with the people of New Caledonia who had 'developed a democratic, egalitarian culture.' (According to Hartmann the difference is that the Maori had been on New Zealand for 700 years and had come to their crisis point, the people of New Caledonia had been there for 3,500 years and had already come through a similar crisis.) And he concludes this section by looking at an ancient Peruvian city that had a peaceful society for a thousand years.

The subtitles from Hartmann's final chapter sum up his ideas for changing things: 'Recovering a Culture of Democracy', 'Reunite Us with Nature', 'Create an Economy Modeled on Biology', 'Balance the Power of Women and Men', and 'Influence People by Helping Them Rather Than Bombing Them'. While the details of his solutions are not radical enough for me (he doesn't really challenge capitalism and nationalism), I would hardly call it New Agey or 'an unfocused mishmash'. (Maybe the reviewer didn't like the fact that Hartmann didn't offer a single solution to all the problems...) Of course, I think that my quartet of Simplicity, Equality, Community, and Sustainability are direct answers to the four 'mistakes'--but if you've been reading this blog a while, I'm sure you knew that. Still, this is a worthwhile book with some good analysis and good ideas on how to change things. I think it's worth a read.

Quote of the Day: "Our goal must be to bring all our own people--and then the rest of the world, in each culture's own way--above Maslow's threshold of safety and security so they can seriously engage in the egalitarian and liberal concepts of democracy and survivability. Whatever country, religion, organization, or culture that does that will then have the minds and hearts of the people, and can drive from the bottom up the kinds of change that will bring stability, freedom, peace, and sustainability to the world....
"Now saving the world is your work, too. Tag--you're it!" - Thom Hartmann

Friday, December 25, 2009


First of all, to all who celebrate it, I wish you a very Merry Christmas.

A former Catholic Christian, now a confirmed heathen, I am nevertheless a supporter of those who truly follow the Christian path. I do sometimes get bemused and occasionally annoyed by those who want to make everybody Christian though.

So, when I first heard the question, 'What Would Jesus Do?', a few years ago, my reaction was neutral to slightly negative. It seemed like one more way of asserting Christian superiority.

But, for some reason, I started thinking about it the other day. What would Jesus do? I thought back to all the gospel stories that I could remember--and the more I thought about it, the more I started to think that the things that Jesus would do--at least according to what was in the bible--seemed pretty good to me.

I talked about this with my friend, Robert, who has been making a recent, in depth, study of the bible. He basically agreed with my thinking.

First of all, Jesus preached and practiced nonviolence. He would not have supported any war. It's all over Matthew: "Blessed are the peacemakers", "...if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also;" "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," and when asked how many time you should forgive those who sin against you, Jesus says, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven." Luke also: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you..."

The only violent act that I know of that Jesus did was when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple--it's in all four gospels: " shall not make my Father's house a house of trade." (John) "'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you have made it a den of robbers." (Luke) It all makes me think Christ wouldn't have been a big supporter of corporate capitalism either.

I also mentioned my theory of SECS (see my post of 12/22/08 and the posts following; also in my latest zine) when talking about this, and Robert pointed out that Jesus did not talk about Sustainability. I don't think it was a hot topic at the time.

On the other hand, Jesus was certainly into Simplicity: "You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor..." (Mark) " not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. ... Sell your possessions, and give alms..." (Luke) "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." (Matthew)

As far as Equality goes, Jesus was there as well, not only hanging out with the rich and poor, but "...many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples..." (Mark) Jesus talks with women, and a Samaritan woman at that, which amazes his disciples. (John) Robert pointed out to me that the shepherds that the angel appears to in Luke's nativity story were the lowest of the low in that society, what we would think of as gypsies, who slept out in the fields because they weren't allowed in town. Jesus seemed to treat everyone as an equal.

And finally, Jesus clearly believed in love, connection, and community. "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." (John) I've mentioned before that when I was in seventh grade a nun told us that the apostles were 'the first communists'. It's in the Acts of the Apostles: "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common."

The more I think about it, the more I respect those that really ask themselves, what would Jesus do? It seems an appropriate question for Christmas.

(Incidentally, all quotes are from my copy of the Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version.)

Quote of the Day: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another." - John 13:34

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Permaculture Principles

As I learn more and more about permaculture (or 'regenerative culture' as some practitioners are now calling it), I am more and more appreciating the perspective that it offers. I first blogged on 'Permaculture' almost a year and a half ago (7/22/08). In that post I wrote an overview of permaculture. Here I'd like to focus on ethics and basic principles.

As I wrote in my first post, permaculture comes with a lot of interesting techniques. (I'm particularly fond of sheet mulching aka 'lasagna gardening'.) However, it is as a design philosophy that permaculture really shines. Permaculture is truly a systemic way of looking at things. (See my post of 12/14/09 for more on 'Systems'.) And that's why the ethics and principles of permaculture are so important.

The ethics seem clear; three important points are laid out. There seems to be no questions on the first two: care for the earth ('Earthcare') and care for people ('Peoplecare'). There are a few versions of the third. The one that seems currently popular now is 'Fairshare'--placing limits on consumption and making sure that we equitably share Earth's resources. I have also heard it referred to as giving away the surplus, which I like even better.

However, there are many different lists of the basic principles of permaculture. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (aka ATTRA) lists thirteen principles. The Heathcote community, in its teaching module on permaculture, lists seven principles. David Holmgren, one of the founders of permaculture, lists twelve design principles. And Wikipedia, in its article on Permaculture, lists what it calls the O'BREDIM design methodology. (O'BREDIM stands for observation, boundaries, resources, evaluation, design, implementation and maintenance.)

I am going to pick and choose from all these lists. There is nothing original here--almost all of what's below has been lifted (rather directly--creative plagiarism) from one or more of the sites referenced above. (Occasionally I have fiddled with the wording so it makes more sense to me and I have combined stuff from different sites within some of the principles I list.) Here are what I think are the more important principles of permaculture in an order that I think makes sense:

1) Thoughtful and protracted observation: (I got this wording from Starhawk, Webs of Power.) Observation allows you first to see how the site functions within itself, to gain an understanding of its initial relationships.

2) Design from patterns to details: By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

3) Stacking functions: Make sure that each element performs multiple functions.

4) Repeating functions: Make sure that each function is supported by many elements.

5) Reciprocity: Utilize the yields of each element to meet the needs of other elements in the system.

6) Integrate rather than segregate: By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

7) Diversity: We want to create resilience by utilizing many elements.

8) Conservation: Use only what is needed.

9) Produce no waste: By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

10) Use the edges and value the margins: The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse, and productive elements in the system. Work to increase the edges within a system.

11) Use small and slow solutions: Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

12) Creatively use and respond to change: We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

That's my list. By looking through the lists I referenced above, you can create your own.

Now, who wants to create a new society using these principles?

Quote of the Day: "The process of providing for people's needs within ecological limits requires a cultural revolution. Inevitably such a revolution is fraught with many confusions, false leads, risks and inefficiencies. We appear to have little time to achieve this revolution. In this historical context, the idea of a simple set of guiding principles that have wide, even universal application is attractive." - David Holmgren

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Cost of Homelessness

Today is National Homeless Persons' Memorial Day. There will be vigils through out the country commemorating those who have died while being homeless. Through Bloggers Unite, blogs across the web will post something about homelessness.

A few weeks ago, I was at a rally in Boston. There were speakers and people singing but, although it was only around 30 degrees, the wind chill was fierce. My hands and feet began feeling cold to the point of being painful as I was standing there listening. A woman got up and spoke about how climate change was affecting people in the inner city. She mentioned that people weren't worrying about the environment when they had to decide between paying for food or heat. I thought about that for a moment and suddenly I was aware that, frozen as I was, I could go home when the rally was done and warm up. I thought about all the homeless people who have nowhere to go in this awful weather, and how many of them were actually freezing to death as I was just suffering temporarily.

My housemate just returned from Boston as I started writing this. She had passed a heating grate near Boston Common with metal spikes on it, apparently to prevent homeless people from sleeping there. She was outraged and came home and made a wooden cross that she wrote 'RIP Homeless People' on and went back there and put the cross over the grate to make it obvious what the city was doing.

Too many people have died because we don't care enough to make sure that everyone has a home. What will it take to change that?

How can we create a world where everyone has shelter, where everyone can be warm, where everyone has enough to eat? How can we create a world where, instead of McMansions, SUVs and plasma screen TVs, everyone's real needs are met? Everyone. The world over. Starting right here.

Quote of the Day: "There's no such thing as a natural death when you're living on the streets. It is just plain dangerous to be homeless." - Michaelann Bewsee

Sunday, December 20, 2009


For me this is a peaceful, holy time. I have memories of Christmas mixed in with my pagan reclaiming of the snows and candles and stars and evergreens. For me, Yule (as some pagans call the winter solstice) is the end of the year and the beginning of a time of reflection while I wait for the world to catch up on New Year's Day.

Right now I am waiting for the snow to fall. We are expecting six inches to a foot of snow and I just got word that a permaculture workshop that was scheduled for tomorrow is being cancelled because of the storm. This will give me more time for reflection, as well as more time to get things done.

I work this week until Wednesday and then the place I work shuts down until after the New Year. With my mother gone, others in my family are focusing on their in-law families and so we won't be getting together on Christmas for the first time that I can remember--instead we will have a New Year's day celebration which we will come together, exchange gifts, and enjoy each other's company.

And I will enjoy having some quiet time to myself, to read and rest and think and plan. What have I learned from the past year? What will this new year bring?

Feel free to add your comments on your year past and future.

And I am blogging on this today, right before the official solstice because the 21st is the National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, and bloggers, organized by Michaelann Bewsee, have been encouraged to write on the subject of Homelessness. So that's what I'll be writing on tomorrow.

And to all, may peace and stillness be with you no matter what you celebrate: Happy Yule, Solstice, Bodhi Day, Al-Hijra, Channukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year... Love and blessings to all!

Quote of the Day: "Yule (Jul) means 'wheel' in Norwegian. The wheel of the year stops and starts again.... The Solstice energy is one of pause, a chance to stop and express our hopes and intentions.... This is the time to pause, to perceive the seeds of our future growth, to gather intent, and make our resolutions for the coming months.... Be still. Experience the stillness... See where you want to be going when the time for movement comes." - Glennie Kindred

Friday, December 18, 2009

Mutual Causality

Causality is about how things happen; it's about causes. Much of philosophy, religion, and science view cause and effect in a linear pattern. A causes B which in turn causes C.

As I began a recent, deeper study of Buddhist thinking, I ran into something called 'dependent origination'. The Dalai Lama, for example, claims that it is very important to be aware of dependent origination in order to develop compassion. I read people who claim this is one of the key concepts in Buddhist teachings. I couldn't figure out what it meant. I need to thank my friend Robert, both for loaning me the book that I am reviewing here--Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory by Joanna Macy--as well as giving me some of his own writings on a variety of Buddhist topics, including dependent origination, which he refers to as 'Interdependent Co-arising'. Robert's choice of words was influenced by Joanna Macy's book. She, herself, uses the term 'dependent co-arising'. All these terms--dependent origination, interdependent co-arising, and dependent co-arising--relate to Buddha's view of the 'self' and of the world.

One of the traditional Indian views is that none of these really exist; they are all illusion, Maya. This is different from Western views that either claim only the self exists, or that the material world exists and is solid and studiable. Buddha, in early teachings, claims that none of these are true. Things, and the self, exist, but only in relationship. There is nothing solid, there is only process. Dependent origination/interdependent co-arising is the belief that everything is made of other stuff and nothing exists on its own. Two sheaves of reeds leaning against each other and a tripod of three sticks are a couple of the metaphors used to explain this. Remove any one of the sheaves or sticks and the rest fall down. They are dependent on each other. Similarly, the 'Self' does not exist on its own. There would be no self without a mind and there would be no self without a body. (And there would be no mind without a brain, but the mind is not the brain; just as there would be no body without cells, but the body is more than just a collection of cells.) The claim is that if you examine anything to see what it is, the thing disappears into a web of relationships. And the same is true of cause and effect. Nothing is caused by one thing, it is caused by a combination of factors, which it then influences. This is mutual causality.

This sounds a lot like what I learned as 'co-evolution' and it is. Joanna Macy goes on to point out that General System Theory (aka cybernetics, complexity theory, etc--see my last post) sees everything as connected to everything else and everything influencing everything else. In a systemic viewpoint, no one thing causes another thing, rather everything 'emerges' from relationships. (If you take everything down to the smallest level that we have been able to understand--subatomic 'particles'--everything is composed of quarks and leptons, which seem to be more like energy relationships than 'particles'.) Everything is a system in which 'the whole is more than the sum of its parts'. Joanna Macy uses Arthur Koesler's term holon (both a whole and a part) to explain this--seeing systems as 'nested boxes' or an "inverted tree... where systems branch downward into subsystems". Macy also mentions the metaphors of Heraclitus's 'ever-changing river' and of fire and flame (Buddha was supposed to have said "Everything... is burning...") to illustrate the continually-in-process (as opposed to solid and stable) nature of reality.

The language of this book is dry and academic. Joanna Macy's other writings are anything but dry; however here she is writing for an academic audience. (The book was originally published by the State University of New York.) But the ideas in this book make it worth reading. Macy ties the critiques of Buddhism and General Systems Theory together to totally undercut linear views of causality. In successive chapters, she looks at the Co-Arising of 'Knower and Known', 'Body and Mind', and 'Doer and Deed'. But it is in the last three chapters of Mutual Causality that she focuses on social change. The first of these chapters is entitled "The Co-Arising of Self and Society". She points out that we only exist in relation to others and society only exists in relation to each of us. This leads to her chapter on "Mutual Morality"--as I pointed out in one of my earliest posts ('Two Basic Principles', 6/30/08) if we really believe that everything is connected, then our self interest lies in helping others and making sure that the social and natural worlds function well. She ends the book with a chapter on "The Dialectics of Personal and Social Transformation": in changing ourselves we change our world, and in changing our world we change ourselves. There is what I see as a large feminist core here--one I can relate to Cris Williamson's "'re flowing like a river, the changer and the changed..." and Shekinah Mountainwater's "We are the weavers, we are the web..."

Of course each of us is small and Society is big--so individually it changes us more than we change it. But I am reminded also of Holly Near's lyrics to "The Rock will Wear Away": "Can we be like drops of water, Falling on the stone, Splashing, breaking, dispersing in air, Weaker than the stone by far but be aware, That, As time goes by, The rock will wear away..."

Quote of the Day: "From the cybernetic perspective, then, ends are open-ended. Their value for us is not as states we much [sic] achieve, come what may, or blueprints by virtue of which we manipulate persons and objects, but as ever-unfolding visions of what is valuable. The means we employ to realize the vision are steps taken in consequence of it. And each step expands or alters this vision, for what is realized, made real, are the acts themselves. ... For in mutual causality, whether viewed religiously or scientifically, the views we hold are ... present realities, unfolding out of the core of our existence and capable of transforming it in the present moment." - Joanna Macy

Monday, December 14, 2009


In college, I studied psychology and, just after graduating, I studied a little bit about family therapy. Later I got interested in computers and something called 'cybernetic modeling'. I was also intrigued by the branch of philosophy of science called General Systems Theory. And I was influenced in the eighties by feminist theory and things like ecofeminism and feminist process.

If you've followed this blog for a while, you're probably aware that these days my interests are more in the nature of ecology, complexity theory, intentional communities, permaculture, and transition towns. I've been also studying a bit about Buddhism. One book in particular really wrapped all this stuff together for me. It's a quite academic book, written by Joanna Macy, with the dry title of Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory. I'll talk more about the book in my next post.

What do family therapy, cybernetics, General Systems Theory, feminist process, ecology, complexity theory, intentional communities, permaculture, and the Transition Initiative have in common? Not hard to guess with the title of this blog--they are all about systems. Family systems, cybernetic systems, ecosystems, and complex adaptive systems. Feminist process has often been about creating group (ie, systemic) leadership rather than individual leadership. Permaculture is all about systems design. An intentional community is as much a system as an ecosystem. The Transition movement is all about systemic change. And Joanna Macy makes it clear in her book that Buddhist thinking has a lot in common with systems theory.

I think that most of my life I have felt drawn to systemic ways of looking at things. One of my mantras is "It's all connected." This is why I can go from talking about love and compassion to peak oil to poverty and social justice to barnraisings and gardenraisings to relocalization. I see the connections; I can even dimly see the whole system behind it all. What I can see clearer, what's generally always on my mental peripheral vision, is a vision of a different way of living. I know that another world is possible and it is a world that recognizes systems and interconnections. Systems theory, as I am relearning, has talked about self-organizing and emerging systems for quite a while--complexity theory is just the latest incarnation. That's why I spend so much time pointing out that there isn't a single most important problem to deal with and there won't be one simple solution to it all. It is a systems problem and it requires systemic thinking and systemic change.

Quote of the Day: "The way to build a complex system that works is to build it from very simple systems that work." - Kevin Kelly

Friday, December 11, 2009


What I'm writing this time harks back to one of my earliest posts (6/28/08), which I entitled 'Looking for The Answer?' I pointed out there that I didn't think there was one solution to all of our problems and was skeptical of those who did.

A few months back I was at a meeting of our local Transition group. (See my post of 10/16/08 for more on the Transition Initiative.) We had just seen a disturbing film on the effects of peak oil. In response, a bunch of people began propounding solutions to the problem--very different solutions offered, one after another, with no reference to anything that anyone else had said. There was a real feeling that no one was listening to anyone else. (Actually, not totally true--one of the facilitators was trying to pull together some of the threads--but she was cut off by yet another person needing to propose his theory of why we were in this mess.) I realized that if the purpose of this group was really to build a movement, we were certainly going about it the wrong way.

And I had this vision, a kind of metaphorical insight. I have been part of related groups where we had been doing 'weatherization barnraisings' and 'garden raisings' (basically, helping each other weatherize our houses and building raised bed gardens together.) My vision was of some type of actual barnraising--or at least trying to build something together: a shack, a shed, a house, a barn, or even a few raised bed gardens.

Imagine that a crowd gathers as a truck pulls up and unloads a stack of wooden boards. Each person grabs a board--and examines it and proclaims it the best board ever. Everyone begins walking around yelling that they have the greatest board of all times and everyone else's board is lousy.

My question is: How fast do you think anything will get built?

As far as I'm concerned, the only way to build anything--I will repeat this because I think it's important--the only way to build anything, is to connect the boards.

Quote of the Day: "Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don't have to do anything else. We don't have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen." - Margaret Wheatley

Friday, December 4, 2009


Wandering through the 'blogosphere', amidst all the family scrapbooks and merchandising sites, there are some really good blogs--blogs which speak truth about the world. Among them, I think, are the blogs that I follow. One of them, Provocations, had a post (two months ago) that continues to resonate with me. It was called 'Cultivate'. The writer, Robyn Coffman, who also goes by ViolentLove, wrote something so profound, I feel the need to quote much of it here. She said:

"Let us cultivate unoffendable hearts.

"Everyday we have so many opportunities to be offended. The occasions for taking offense are practically endless. Indeed, we are daily given the opportunity to either be offended by something or to possess an unoffendable heart.

"Online, offline. In relationships. At work and play... so often we are misunderstood, misrepresented and/or dealing with people who operate out of their places of pain... we have the choice to either continue the cycles of offense or to stop them.

"We can choose to pour out grace, mercy, love and truth."

I think about this frequently. How can I be unoffendable? How can I respond with "grace, mercy, love and truth" rather than my usual defensiveness? It's a prod to me to change how I am in the world.

Robyn is an evangelical Christian who ministers to abused young people. I am often amazed and humbled by her descriptions of her work. But oddly enough, another post that moved me was by someone with a very different religious perspective. My friend Susan Rose is an Ethical Culture leader--basically humanist clergy. Her faith is quite different from Robyn's but what they both have in common is caring hearts. Susan does her ministry these days over at the Ethical Society Without Walls website, also known as ESWoW.

A couple of months ago she wrote a post that I was taken with called 'Act So As To Elicit The Best'. The title comes from a concept developed by Felix Adler, the founder of Ethical Culture: "Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in oneself." In her post Susan says that to do this requires that we believe "that others do indeed have a 'best.'" I think that believing others really do have a best is an important part of creating a better world. It's so easy to write off people, so to assume that people have a 'best' is to believe that everyone is important, that everyone has worth. Susan talks about this as her message to others: "I value your ideas, I value your being." She points out that she doesn't say this in so many words, but this is what she believes and she tries to make her actions actions consistent with it. She said that when her daughter questioned her about "...what makes Ethical Culture a religion...", Susan gave her treatment of others as an example of spiritual value from Ethical Culture.

These two posts got me thinking. Imagine if we all could be unoffendable, instead pouring out "grace, mercy, love and truth." Imagine if we saw the best in every person, valuing their ideas and their very being. I think this would be radical social change. I think that this could begin the healing of the world.

Quote of the Day: "The first and most essential principle
is the cultivation of the heart.
"There is only one way
to cultivate this quality
to become more and more selfless
with each step we take." -Robyn Coffman

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's Not a Race

Commuting to work by bicycle is interesting. I'm far from the only cyclist on the road--there is usually a line of bikes next to the line of cars. The thing is that I am a fairly slow cyclist compared to the twenty-somethings passing me on racing bikes, while my fifty-eight year old legs pump my fat-tired mountain bike.

Unfortunately some of the folks seem to mistake the morning commute for the 'Tour de France'--jockeying for position and cutting one another off. (Not to mention bombing through red lights--I may be one of the few cyclists that actual stops for red lights.)

As I'm biking to work I started thinking about the saying 'Nice Guys Finish Last'. For a moment forget about the sexist language and questions about what 'nice' means. Just think about the implications of this for a minute. Finish what? What are we in a rush for?

I hope it's not about life, because I'm in no hurry to finish that. That would be a nice thing to finish last.

But there seems to be a tendency in this society to view life as some sort of race. We are impelled by urgency. In a capitalist economic system, everything is about competition and getting ahead of everyone else. A few months ago Harvard Square Station (in Cambridge) was decked with signs claiming "You're Either Fast or You're Food" and decorated with wolves, big cats, and guys in racing shoes.

Is this the way we want to live? Instead of 'Nice Guys Finish Last', how about 'We Travel Together and Help Each Other'? That's the difference between rampant individualism and building community.

Quote of the Day: "It is more important to know where you are going than to get there quickly." - Mabel Newcomer

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving in the US is hard holiday for me and many people--fraught with ambiguity.

On one hand, this holiday is about how the Native People helped the European colonists survive and how thankful the Pilgrims were for this. Of course, the repayment for this act of kindness was that the Native People were eventually wiped out. The United American Indians of New England claim, "The first official 'Day of Thanksgiving' was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men." These folks celebrate 'Thanksgiving Day' as a 'National Day of Mourning'. Is this what I want to celebrate?

On the other hand, I am really taken by the idea of setting aside any time, let alone a full day, to be grateful and thankful. I think we should spend our lives being grateful, even just for being alive. We have many blessings in this life and I believe that we need to acknowledge them.

Still, this seems to be a day where what we are grateful for is the blessings that have come to us through privilege, that we were not born or become poor, that we have this wonderful country that came from getting rid of the Native People that lived here in what amounts to genocide and enslaving people from Africa to build our infrastructure. This isn't what I want to celebrate.

Yet this year, my family will be gathering together, mostly to celebrate our connections with each other and to support one another. I certainly want to celebrate this.

Contradictions, uncertainty--what are we really celebrating here? What do I want to support?

I would like to support general thankfulness and connection while acknowledging our privilege and trying to figure out how to help those in need of help. My housemate has made a tradition of going down to the National Day of Mourning in Plymouth and helping feed the people there--some year I would like to do that. I know others who go to soup kitchens and help feed people on Thanksgiving. When I lived in Brattleboro, VT, I helped out (mostly by doing dishes) with a feast put on by people in the town where they would feed anyone who came, no questions asked, including the homeless and people who drove up from New York in fancy cars--and also brought meals to the elderly and to police and firefighters who had to work that day.

This year I am going to spend the day with my family. It's our first Thanksgiving since my mother's death--and, in fact, Thanksgiving was the last time I saw my mother awake, interacting, and talking with us. We need to be with each other, especially since some of my family are facing the possible deaths of in-laws.

I'm not sure what I will do next Thanksgiving. But I do try to take the opportunity every day to be thankful and not save it for one, culturally loaded day.

Quote of the Day: "Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. ... Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow." - Melodie Beattie

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reduce and Reuse

'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle' is an oft quoted phrase. Unfortunately, I think that when many people hear it what actually goes through their heads is the equivalent of 'Recycle, Recycle, Recycle'. The phrase is so connected with recycling that plastic companies brand their products with the ubiquitous three arrows (which I think stand for 'Reduce, Reuse, Recycle') to show that the products are recyclable.

What many people don't get is that there is an order to the phrase.

First, and most important, is reducing our consumption. Having less stuff, needing less stuff, leads to wasting less stuff. Companies (who want to sell you things) are not keen on emphasising that part of the phrase.

Then comes reusing things. When you need something, it's important to reuse it. Unfortunately, this society has been called the 'Disposable Society' and the 'Throw-away Society' because of the amount of waste we generate. Again, companies encourage you to use something once and throw it away so you will buy more of their products. Another way of encouraging you not to reuse things is what's called 'Planned Obsolescence' where companies design products to only work or be desirable for a short time so that you will run out and buy a replacement.

Is it any wonder that the recycling part of the phrase is what is drummed into people? When you recycle a thing, you can feel good about it not ending up in a landfill, and then go out and buy more of whatever. One thing that is often not taken into account is the amount of energy that goes into recycling an object. While it is usually less than what's involved in making the object from scratch, recycling is a lot more energy intensive than if you reused the item--or just decided you didn't need it in the first place.

Simple living is all about reducing what we need. (See my post of 9/24/08 for more on Simplicity.) Sustainability is best served by reusing things. (Again, see my post of 10/14/08 for my take on Sustainability.) Reduce and reuse. Less energy, less pollution, less waste, less climate change. Reduce, reuse, and remember to do it again and again.

Quote of the Day: "'Reduce' means using fewer resources in the first place. This is the most effective of the three R's and the place to begin. It is also, I think, the hardest because it requires letting go of some very American notions, including: the bigger the better, new trumps old and convenience is next to godliness. ...
"Reuse. Before you recycle or dispose of anything, consider whether it has life left in it. ... Reusing keeps new resources from being used for a while longer, and old resources from entering the waste stream. It's as important as it is unglamorous. Think about how you can do it more." - Sheryl Eisenberg

Thursday, November 19, 2009


One of the good things about people reinventing the wheel is that it's never the same exact wheel--and the differences are often interesting.

I was prowling through my local library and found the book, Noah's Garden, by Sara Stein. While reading it I was reminded of several permaculture things I've read, especially Gaia's Garden, by Toby Hemenway. (For more on permaculture, see my post of 7/22/08.) It's funny, because Sara Stein is coming from a different place than Toby Hemenway and ends up in a different place, but midway through there is a place where the books seem very similar. Sort of an 'X' pattern.

Sara Stein started as a woman wanting to create a garden. She didn't have much knowledge about this--she had been a toy designer and a children's book writer. She decided, as she started planting things, she would learn more by reading gardening books. It also seemed logical to her to study some botany as well. She figured the gardening folks and the botany people would be saying much the same things. It turned out that wasn't true at all. She wrote in Noah's Garden: "Horticulture told me to cultivate the soil to control weeds; botany told me the more the soil is disturbed, the more weeds grow. Gardening books said that grass needs fertilizing; botany books said that grasses produce the soil fertility that other plants depend on."

She also noticed as she built a neat and clear garden, that the birds, and butterflies, and wildlife around her were disappearing. So she 'unbecame' a gardener. She began looking at ecosystems and how plants and wildlife interact and began studying native plants for the region. Instead of making nice, neat gardens, she began creating native environments which attracted birds and other wildlife. She made a pond and got heron and muskrat. She created a small 'prairie' and got meadowlarks, and wild flowers, and insect life. She wrote about what the land around her looked like in the 1600's and the late 1800's and compares it to what she saw where she lived. She wrote about remembering growing up with creatures she no longer saw: birds like purple martins and bluebirds, butterflies, box turtles, salamanders, snakes, bats, weasels, bullfrogs, and fireflies. She began to realize that only by restoring the land would these animals come back. Noah's Garden is subtitled 'Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Back Yards'.

Sara Stein became a strong voice for supporting native species and once criticized Michael Pollan for planting a Norway maple. He responded by calling her a 'Plant Fascist'. But when she talks about her philosophy of restoring the land, she suggests doing small things, like planting a raspberry hedgerow or a small-fruited crabapple tree. That hardly sounds like a 'plant fascist'. Sara Stein died in 2005 and was described in the New York Times obituary as "an influential advocate for gardening with native plants".

I found the book very useful for learning about the ecology of New England and many little details--like clear explanations of grasses and how they interact, and what happens to an animal when it dies. I also liked her concern for recreating ecosystems with things like hedges and pointing out how plants and animals need each other. This is what reminded me of Toby Hemenway's book.

Toby Hemenway began his career as a researcher in genetics and immunology working for biotech companies. Then he discovered permaculture. The book Gaia's Garden uses a lot of language about the 'Garden as Ecosystem' and ecological gardening. Hemenway focuses on gardening but points out that most of his ideas are derived from permaculture and ecological design. The book contains a lot of incredibly useful stuff, including tips on sheet mulching, creating constructed wetlands, how soil works, how insects and birds help gardens, and how to create 'guilds' of plants. The book has just been reprinted--revised and expanded.

Hemenway can be critical of native species advocates. He seems exasperated with 'The Natives versus Exotics Debate' in Gaia's Garden and has written a pointedly critical article that is posted on his website. But in the back of Gaia's Garden (and also on his website) is a list of books that includes Noah's Garden. He says that it is a "well-written and compelling plea for allowing nature back into our yards, full of natural history."

The two 'Garden' books end in different places (Stein trying to attract wildlife, Hemenway trying to grow food), just as the authors started in very different places. But I was struck by that intersection of thinking of gardens as ecosystems, of involving wildlife and all of nature in what we plant, of seeing the soil as transforming what dies into new life, and of creating hedges that both people and animals can enjoy. I didn't realize until I went on Toby Hemenway's website that he was familiar with Sara Stein's book (it's been awhile since I looked at the Bibliography in Gaia's Garden, but there's Noah's Garden again). Maybe it influenced what he wrote. But I like to think that, travelling from different places, they came to similar territory. Certainly I don't think that Sara Stein was familiar with permaculture nor the founders of permaculture with her work. Yet the similarities stand out, and I find the differences enriching. Sometimes it's useful to re-invent the wheel.

Quote of the Day: "Once a garden comes alive ecologically, it displays a humor and richness of meaning that have been missed by the narrow ways of horticulture.... Each plant or planting becomes more than what nurseries believe they sell, or gardeners suppose they grow, or visitors would notice.... To the cardinals that overwinter here, a grove of conifers is a lifeboat in the ocean, the focus of their struggle to survive through winter storms. The grove is richer for that additional meaning." - Sara Stein

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Great Turning

I am skeptical of those who insist that a great change is upon us and that everything will be different soon. I've heard this too many times.

I heard it from Charles Reich in the seventies talking about The Greening of America and how 'Consciousness III' would be taking over soon. Somehow America doesn't look all that green nearly forty years later. I heard it from Marilyn Ferguson in the eighties talking about The Aquarian Conspiracy and how that was going to change everything. The Conspiracy seems to have disappeared without causing any major changes. Recently I have been hearing Paul Hawken claiming that the Blessed Unrest that he sees is "the largest movement in the world" and how it "has the potential to heal the planet". I'd love to believe it but I've been there before.

So it may seem strange that I am so excited about something called 'The Great Turning'. But the term does not refer to an event predicted to come; the Great Turning refers to choices that must be made. It begins with a similar idea to Reich, Ferguson, Hawken, etc--that there is an epic shift coming. The actual term was first used by activists against nuclear war working for 'conflict transformation'. It was taken up by Joanna Macy, who not only has been involved in antinuclear war activism, but in the deep ecology movement and engaged Buddhism. In an interview in Yes! magazine, she pointed out that "...we might not pull it off. There's no guarantee that this tremendous shift will kick in before our life support systems unravel irretrievably."

It has further been developed as a book by David Korten, The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community. I haven't read the book, but some of the ideas I've seen seem interesting, especially his notions of 'Empire' and 'Earth Community'. Still, it is the articles by Joanna Macy that impress me.

David Korten admits he got the term from Joanna Macy, and said that when he asked her to use it, she said that it "should be a public term that is used by everyone and owned by no one."

The thing that most fascinates me about Joanna Macy's ideas are what she refers to as the 'Three Dimensions' necessary to create the change. Briefly, according to Joanna Macy, they are: "1. Actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings; 2. Analysis of structural causes and the creation of structural alternatives; and 3. A Shift in Consciousness." When I first heard this I thought immediately of the slogan I first heard in the early eighties when I was in Detroit: "Agitate, educate, organize." (For more of this see my post from 7/2/08.) I related the 'Actions to slow damage' to Agitating, the 'creation of structural alternatives' to Organizing, and the 'Shift in Consciousness' to Educating. As I said in my original post, there's been a lot of good agitating, I think we need more good organizing (that is, creating more alternatives and more resilient alternatives), and that we haven't done that well at educating. But it's useful to see what she sees as happening. It's also important to remember, as she points out, we need work in all three dimensions simutaneously. Not that every one of us needs to work in all three, but we need to support the work in each of these areas.

As I've said since the beginning of this blog, it isn't any one thing that creates change (see my post of 6/28/08). We need to connect it all, and I suppose that would include Charles Reich's 'Greening of America', Marilyn Ferguson's 'Aquarian Conspiracy', and Paul Hawken's 'Blessed Unrest'. There isn't any guarantee of success, but when we do connect it together, the agitating and 'actions', the organizing of 'structural alternatives', and the education for a 'Shift in Consciousness', we become more powerful. More powerful than they want us to be and possibly powerful enough to make a difference.

Quote of the Day: "Let us sing this song for the turning of the world, that we may turn as one.
With every voice, with every song,
we will move this world along,
and our lives will feel the echo of our turning." - Ruth Pelham

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bright Green, Dark Green, Deep Green

A lot of my posts are not topical, because I'm more interested in longer term issues, but I had to jump on this because it's all about stuff that I've blogged about and because the issues raised are close to what this blog is all about.

It started with a post by Alex Steffen on the WorldChanging website (see my post of 11/13/08 for more about WorldChanging) entitled 'Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities?' As might be gathered, it was more or less a slam on Transition Towns. (See my post of 10/16/08 for more on Transition Towns.) Rob Hopkins (Transition Towns founder) quickly responded. It seemed like a level-headed response to me, even suggesting that the problem may be that the Transition Initiative (as they now call themselves) hasn't been as good as they could about communicating what they are all about.

Other folks across the net begin weighing in, beginning with John Robb over at Global Guerrillas (I've touched on the Global Guerillas blog in posts on 8/13/08 and 8/31/08) and moving on to Sami Grover on Treehugger. Sam Grover wrote a second piece a couple of days later with a video that he claims gives credence to the idea that Transition Towns aren't such a Dark shade of Green--and he also thinks that Alex Steffen made his points better in his more recent post: 'The Revolution Will Not Be Hand-Made'. I'm not so sure. I actually do think that the revolution will be mostly hand made, but I'm sure that Alex Steffen would just dismiss me as just another 'Dark Green' wannabe.

Those who read some or all of these posts--or have even followed this post this far--can be forgiven for being a bit bewildered. What is with this 'Bright Green'/'Dark Green' terminology?

This is more of the way Alex Steffen thinks--beginning with a post entitled 'Bright Green, Light Green, Dark Green, Gray: The New Environmental Spectrum'. Basically he sees those who embrace technology as 'Bright Green'; those who advocate easy lifestyle changes as enough as 'Light Green'; those who advocate local solutions, change at the community level, bioregionalism, reinhabitation, and collective action (sound familiar?) as 'Dark Green'; and those who deny we need to do anything at all as 'Gray'. He also claims that the Dark Green folk tend to be 'doomers'. (Since he is so enamored with 'Bright Green' ideas, I was tempted to put lyrics from Paul Simon's 'The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine' as my 'Quote of the Day'...)

Somewhere (and I can't seem to find where--or maybe I just made it up) I thought I saw a response to this post adding the term 'Deep Green'--from 'Deep Ecology'--to differentiate those who believe in significant ecological change from those of apocalyptic persuasion. I like that differentiation.

Me? I think of myself as being somewhat Deep Green, but with a Bright Green tinge in spots as well as some pockets of Dark Green. But that only describes part of who I am. I'm a rainbow person, embracing the anarchist Black, the socialist Red, the feminist Pink, the queer Lavender, the Blue that stands for peace as well as supporting the Blue of working-class collars, and also supporting the Black, Brown, Yellow, and Red of people of color, not to mention the as-yet-to-be-named colors of simplicity, justice, community, and equality. (Hey, I live in a state where the Green Party changed its name to the Green-Rainbow Party.) And at the heart of it all, as far as I'm concerned, is the Deep Rose color of love and compassion.

Okay, what color are you?

Quote of the Day: "Perhaps the best example that Transition Initiatives are an incredibly positive part of that vision lies in Rob's response to Steffen itself. Having refuted some of his arguments, and taken (I think rightly) objection to some of the more hyperbolic charecterizations, Hopkins takes the opportunity for some self reflection: 'Perhaps if he manages to miss what Transition is about in such a way, his piece bats the challenge back to Transition; how well are we communicating what we are doing?' That's the sign of a movement willing to learn—even from perspectives that it disagrees with. I didn't think it was possible, but my love for the Transition Movement just got a little bit deeper." - Sami Grover

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Man Behind the Curtain

In the process of transitioning back to blogging regularly, I thought I'd take the opportunity to say a little about myself.

As anyone who has followed this blog quickly realizes, this is not generally a blog about personal stuff. On the other hand, early on I assumed I could be a genderless, ageless (etc) entity in cyberspace and that allowed some incorrect assumptions to be made by other folks. I also was trying to keep personal information obscure so I could be open about some things and not alert family, coworkers, etc.

I still am not putting my name or picture here (I really don't want my personal information scattered across the internet), but I have slowly talked with my family about things and my work situation is quite different these days, so I can be a lot more candid without worrying someone might identify me. So here is a bit about me, perhaps more than you wanted to know. (And with my next post I will go back to discussing issues.)

First I am a man, and an older man at that. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, "I'm an old white guy." (Yes, surprise, surprise, I'm white.) I was raised in a lower-middle-class Catholic family in the suburbs of Boston. Most of my family still lives in the area.

I'm currently living in an urban co-op house. After years of working in hospitals (as a nursing assistant, mental health worker, and secretary), I have somehow ended up as a petty bureaucrat at a biotech firm. It's hardly what I think of as an appropriate job given my ideals, but in this economy it's a job and I am glad to be working. I have a degree in psychology and I am also a nursing school dropout.

I've written about my politics before, but to recap: I consider myself a radical, but have never quite gotten a good label: socialist? anarchist? eco-feminist? nonviolent revolutionary? Closest current label is eco-communalist, but as I wrote last year, my politics really revolve around trying to create a world based in Simplicity, Equality, Community, and Sustainability. (For more on this see my posts of 9/22/08 to 12/19/08 or get a copy of the latest issue of my zine, Bodhisattva Revolutionaries and Social Alchemists--plug, plug.) Even more central to my beliefs is that everything needs to be based in love and compassion--we need to be good to each other.

In some ways, I sometimes think of myself as 45 to 180 degrees away from mainstream American society in just about all areas of my life. I have taken to occasionally using the term queer, not only because I am bisexual and polyamorous, but because I have always felt 'different' and don't see myself fitting in to what is around me in any way, shape, or form. Little things, like being vegan, not owning or using a car, biking to work, living in a group situation, not watching TV, hanging my clothes out to dry, trying to live with less, and getting excited about compost, hardly seem like mainstream behaviors.

Even my spirituality doesn't quite fit anywhere. I call myself a naturalistic pagan but these days I am studying Buddhist philosophy and practices and I still have a lot of influences from my Catholic upbringing. I find myself connected to, involved with, living with, and working with Witches, Quakers, Humanists, born-again Jews, Buddhists, Agnostics, Methodists, Catholics, Unitarian Universalists, and a close friend who I describe as a universalist (small u) who tells me what he's finding out about the ancient Hebrews and compares the teachings of Jesus and Buddha. I occasionally go to Quaker meeting with a housemate--it seems to me to be a lot like the Buddhist meditation that I'm doing.

And I am trying to change from being a know-it-all to being someone who listens more, from being chronically anxious to being a calm presence, and from being judgmental of myself and others to being patient and forgiving with everyone--including myself. It isn't easy, but if I want to change the world (or at least the little bit around me) I know I need to change myself in the process.

Quote of the Day: "When you open your life to the living, all things come spilling in on you, and you're flowing like a river, the changer and the changed..." - Cris Williamson

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Out of the Darkness

This is the time of Halloween, of Día de los Muertos, of All Saints and All Souls Days, the time the Pagans call Samhain. I blogged last year on Darkness in my post of 11/1/08--in it I talked about 'death, disorder, and decay', and entropy. Another aspect of darkness is fertility: the deep, dark earth where seeds germinate and the darkness of the womb where life is nurtured. Darkness allows us to see things (the lights of candles, holiday lights, and especially the stars) that we can't see during the day.

In that spirit, I want to talk about my month off from blogging. As I said in my post of 9/22/09, after five months of intensive posting every three days, I wanted some time off to do other things. So I didn't post anything during October.

Unfortunately, one of the main things I did during the month of October was to work on the second issue of my Zine, which was originally supposed to have come out at the autumn equinox. It is now at the printers and should be out next week. (The zine is called Bodhisattva Revolutionaries and Social Alchemists and issue is entitled 'What I Believe'--it is basically a republishing of my posts from last fall with a little new material. Check the link for more information.)

But I didn't spend all my time working on the zine. I helped work on a house in Boston (the JPGreenHouse) that is being rehabbed to be very low energy use (I will blog on this at some point); watched Michael Moore's Capitalism with my housemates and The Greening of Southie at the Somerville Library; took little classes on energy use, wormbins, seed saving, and insight meditation; and helped out with the Massachusetts Relocatization Conference and the Boston Under Water Festival that took place on October 24 as part of the International Day of Climate Change. Don't think that I was doing exciting things, however. I did cleaning and taking nails out of boards at the JPGreenHouse, sat at the registration table at the Relocalization Conference, and taped up some sagging signs and helped with the clean up at the Boston Under Water Festival. But I think the important thing is to support people who are doing things that move us in a more progressive direction.

And, as I said in my post of 9/22/09, my goal for the next little while is to do what most people do in their blogs--to post irregularly, on whatever strikes my fancy. I will probably pick another theme and explore it at some point (hopefully the series on education that I have been promising since the early days of this blog) but for now I want to focus on my own learning and doing. Winter is coming, a good time to turn inward, and I intend to spend it nuturing myself and my work on community building. Hopefully, the darkness of winter will be nourishing and spring will see me working on many things--among them, my garden, this blog, and building a community. And, of course, I will continue to try to support social change efforts in whatever little way that I can.

Quote of the Day: "... perhaps it is up to us all ... to reach into the dark and reshape it into a clear night sky where we can walk without fear, into a well of healing from which we can all drink, into the velvet skin of life, the newly fertile ground." - Starhawk

Monday, September 28, 2009

Slowly, Cheerfully, Lovingly

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not an emergency. Let me repeat, this is not an emergency.

Yes, we are poisoning the earth, destroying the ecosystem, exploiting each other, and squandering precious and scarce resources. Yes, we need to make drastic changes. But there is no urgency.

Urgency is what got us into this mess. We cannot anxiously and frantically make our way out of it.

Think about it. If we want other people to change, how will we approach them? Would you listen to a panicked person screeching about doom and telling you it will happen unless you do something? How does that compare with listening to a quiet and calm person, someone you respect, carefully suggesting changes that you could make that would make a difference?

You may argue that it's too late to have a reasoned approach. Maybe it's too late altogether. Again, if you are in a car that has already gone off the cliff, will shrieking and yelling make a difference? If you can't do anything else, maybe you should enjoy the view.

I don't know where we are, what the total picture is. What I know is that if we are going to create social change, we have to do it in such a way that people will find it attractive.

We need to listen to others. Hear their fears. Be calm, patient, and forgiving. Calm, patient, and forgiving--of everyone, including ourselves. We need to be cheerful and loving. Cheerful and loving and insist, quietly, that things need to change.

Quote of the Day: "There are those who are trying to set fire to the world,
We are in danger.
There is time only to work slowly,
There is no time not to love." - Deena Metzger

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Today is the Autumn Equinox, the beginning of fall and the time of the harvest. It's a good time to look at what I have accomplished over the past year and where I may be going from here.

I've certainly done a bit in this blog, from covering what I believe (my posts last fall on SECS, CDIP, and SLoBIND), to an overview of US history, to my last five months of posts on our real needs. I've also published a zine from my first three months of posts on this blog and I'm working on a second issue of it. (More about that shortly.)

In my personal life I've made some important connections which I am hoping will lead to me creating a simple, sustainable community next year. I've been reading, thinking, talking with people (and listening to them). I've joined climate change and transition groups, a time trade circle and an urban homesteader's group, and taken workshops in Loving-Kindness Meditation and Urban Permaculture. I tried to grow greens in our garden, with very meager results--but it has been a learning and I plan to keep going.

And I am feeling this is time to make some changes. I am burnt from the zealous posting I have done and want to take time to do other things. So, one decision is to take the month of October off--that's right, I won't do any posts in October--and return in November with a very laid back posting schedule; ie, post when I feel like it, the way most folks with a blog do. I do have a bunch of things that I want to post about, but they are only lightly connected and they will come out as I see fit. I'm planning just one more post for this month--one that I feel strongly about and I hope will set a more relaxed tone for this blog.

Instead of blogging, I want to devote more time to other pursuits: including building and maintaining my connections with people that are important to me, and developing new relationships, and focusing on building community and supporting social change.

I am also running behind on publishing the second issue of Bodhisattva Revolutionaries and Social Alchemists (my zine) which will cover my posts from last fall with a couple of additional chapters, which may turn into posts at some point. I am entitling this issue, "What I Believe." I had said that I'd publish it by today but I am nowhere near ready. My new publishing date is the end of October/beginning of November (Samhain by the pagan calendar). I think this is doable and I expect it will be ready then. If you want to order in advance, send a check (made out to Spirit Movers Enterprises) for $2.50 (which includes postage) to MoonRaven, c/o Spirit Movers Enterprises, 50 Churchill Ave., #320, Cambridge, MA 02140. You can also order the first issue the same way for the same price (or both for $5.00).

Okay. Enough about me. In this season of fullness, what will you harvest? And where do you go from here?

Quote of the Day: "As Lammas was the celebration of the first harvest, the Autumnal Equinox marks the time of the waning Sun, when food is harvested and stored for the coming of Winter, and seeds and grain are gathered for future generations of crops." - Pauline Campanelli

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Our Needs: One Last Look

On 9/2/08 I published a post on 'The Hierachy of Needs' and on 9/4/08 I published a post on 'What We Need and Don't Need'. In a sense, this series grew out of those posts. I began on 5/4/09 with a post entitled 'Looking at Needs'. I listed forty-three different needs and now have published a post about each of them.

In retrospect, I think I may have missed a few. Clothing comes to mind--no matter what you might think about a clothing-optional lifestyle, you can't survive in the winter (at least here in New England) without clothes--unless you never left your house! I probably missed a few others. (Feel free to let me know if you find something I didn't cover.)

I don't think I missed very many needs however, and my point is, this is what we need to focus on. As I mentioned in my last post, there are a lot of so-called 'needs' that the capitalist advertising world wants you to believe that you have (from you 'need' this new deodorant to you 'need' a new car or wardrobe or mcmansion). These are what I was talking about when I wrote about 'What We... Don't Need' last September.

So, the question is: how can we pull ourselves out of a system that creates artificial 'pseudo-needs' and how can we meet, not only our own real needs, but everyone's real needs? This is what I am talking about when I say I am *Offering Some Tools for Creating a World that Works for Everyone *. A world that works for everyone is a world that meets everyone's needs. I hope that my outline of what those needs are will be helpful trying to figure out how to meet them.

Quote of the Day: "What they are all somehow attempting is to break through... the cycles of destruction and despair in order to imagine, remember and create ways of living that correspond to our deepest needs." - Helen Forsey

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


In a sense, it's fitting that Freedom is the last need on this list, because in many ways it is a summation of many of the other needs on this list. As someone pointed out, there is freedom from and freedom to. Many of my earliest posts in this series could be looked at as freedoms from. My posts on water, food, and shelter were also posts on freedom from thirst, hunger, and homelessness. My posts in June about 'Protection from...' could also be seen as 'Freedom from...' My recent posts on Nature, Spirituality, Challenges, Creativity, and Identity, could be seen as posts on 'Freedom to...' posts. Freedom to find our place in nature, explore our spiritual connection, take on challenges, be creative, and be more of who we are.

Freedom may be last on this list but it is first in the minds of many people, both on the right (Libertarians) and the left (from Liberals, who share more than the initial 'liber'--Latin for freedom--with Libertarians, to Anarchists, who were once known as Libertarian Socialists). I certainly think that freedom is a need, and one that I am aware many people have died for. Liberation (there's that 'liber' prefix again) struggles have been fought around the world. The struggle of the civil rights movement was awash in cries for freedom from the Freedom Rides in 1961 to the Freedom March in 1966 to the simple chant "Freedom Now" and the song, "Oh, Freedom". But Audre Lorde reminds us "Not to believe that freedom can belong to any one group of us without the others also being free." Or as the slogan goes, "No one is free while others are oppressed." (Which I found attributed to both Martin Luther King and Albert Einstein.) Freedom is something we all need to achieve together.

But it gets confused with individual freedom. Milton and Rose Friedman entitled their book on the 'Free Market' system, Free to Choose, which I referred to as 'Free to Exploit'. It's not freedom if it takes away from the needs of anyone else. It isn't freedom if it hurts or hinders another person. It's not freedom if it restricts the freedom of another.

Personally, I believe that if we focused on meeting everyone's basic needs (as I've outline in this series) and paid no attention to advertising's 'created needs', we would feel very free indeed.

Alberto Abadie, "Poverty, Political Freedom, and the Roots of Terrorism"--A paper which shows (among other things) that countries with a 'moderate' level of freedom are more prone to terrorism than countries with either a great deal of freedom or very little freedom
Francis Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins, Food First--Contains a chapter on 'Food Versus Freedom' where they demolish the myth that feeding everyone would mean a restriction on freedom; the essence of this chapter is also repeated in the authors' book, World Hunger: Twelve Myths
Libertarian Socialism--An explanation about what Libertarian Socialism is along with how it differs from both 'Libertarians' and authoritarian socialism
A S Neill, Freedom, Not License!--This was the book that got me thinking about the differences between real freedom and things that harm others

Quote of the Day: "Freedom is like air, you breathe it in and never think of it until it runs out." - Anonymous

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Identity is about who we are. Wikipedia, in trying to pin down Identity, uses terms like "whatever makes an entity definable and recognizable" and "an individual's comprehension of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity". It's about what makes us unique, what makes us, us.

In one sense we all have multiple identities. I am Moonraven when I am on this blog, but otherwise I'm not. I am male, white, middle-aged, middle-class, able-bodied, cis-gendered, bisexual, polyamorous, vegan, pagan, a bicyclist, an avid composter, a beginning gardener, and a dedicated communitarian. These are all identities that I have, but they aren't me. Identity can also refer to the essential core of who you are, your 'self' so to speak.

I agree with Thomas Szasz, "...the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates." George Bernard Shaw said something similar, "Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself." Our identities are not a given but something we make of ourselves.

Unfortunately, some people make themselves into 'Characters', sometimes almost caricatures, in order to stand out. We should think about who we want to become. If we are creating ourselves, we should think about what we are creating.

We need to be able to become who we want to be. The need is for us each to claim our own identity. But we also need to be responsible for making our identity something that benefits more than ourselves. There is work that needs to be done. How can you be the best person to do what you need to do?

(And, in the end, as the Buddhists say, we need to be able to let go of our identities and just be.)

Eric Olson, "Personal Identity"--A philosophical survey of the concept of identity from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Carl Rogers and Barry Stevens, Person to Person--Barry Stevens talks about her life and her reactions to papers by Carl Rogers and others; the subtitle is 'The Problem of Being Human' and the book explores the issue of what it means to be a person
Self: The Prime Mover--A page of thoughts and definitions around the idea of the self
Sunada, "If there is no self, then who’s sitting here?"--Meditations on the Buddhist concept of 'No Self'; becoming who you are by letting go of your identity...

Quote of the Day: "The one person the world seems hell-bent on my not living with is me." - Barry Stevens

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Where would we be without creativity? Although creativity is important in the arts, it's also essential in problem solving and political strategy. We will need it if we want to accomplish any real social change.

It seems like a simple thing but creativity (as Wikipedia points out) has been studied by several branches of psychology, by people from philosophy, history, economics, design research, business, and management among other perspectives. Creativity is about flexibility, it's about new ways of seeing things.

Creativity is also something, as Richard Heinberg points out, that we have in abundance and isn't going away. (See my post on 'Peak Everything' from 7/20/08. And note, he doesn't actually say 'creativity'--he says 'ingenuity' and 'artistry'--but that sounds like creativity to me.)

Creativity can be a skill that you learn and practice. It can be a way of looking at the world and anything that comes up. And it truly is something we need more of--particularly as we are creating a simpler, more sustainable society.

Karen Kersting, "What exactly is creativity?"--An article that summarizes some of what has been learned from a psychological perspective
Karl Paulnack Welcome Address--My friend Susan (aka ethicalsusan) told me about this and it's wonderful; an explanation of the importance and essential survival value of music and the arts
Kendra Van Wagner, "How to Boost Your Creativity"--The subtitle says it all: '20 Tips from Psychology for Boosting Creativity'

I'm going to take the opportunity to list my four favorite books on writing as a creative endeavor, which I regard as a right brain (brainstorming, letting it all flow out)/left brain (editing, ruthlessly cleaning it all up) activity. My two favorite right brain books are Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down The Bones and Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird. My two favorite left brain books are Theodore Cheney, Getting the Words Right and Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages.

Quote of the Day: "Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work." - Rita Mae Brown

Monday, September 7, 2009


We all need rest and relaxation, and sleep, and connections with nature, and spiritual connections, but we also need challenges--something to work toward or against, something to stretch ourselves with.

This is related to the concept of 'eustress', a stress that enhances our functioning.

As far as I am concerned, living simply and sustainably (not to mention equally and communally) are enough challenges for those of us trying to do it, that I don't think we need much more. But let's challenge ourselves to really do it.

Crunchy Chicken--A very popular blog that always has challenges; currently she is promoting what she calls her 'Cloth Wipe Challenge', where she's challenging readers to use cloths instead of toilet paper...
No Impact Man--Writer Colin Beavan challenged himself and his family to live off-the-grid, eating locally, and producing no waste for a year (in the middle of NYC!), and they did; on his new website, The No Impact Project, Beavan challenges visitors to do it for a week
Riot 4 Austerity--I blogged about this on 9/28/08 (the post is called 'Riot!'); the 'riot' has been over for over a year but I think it was a great challenge; check out their FAQs for more info

Quote of the Day: "A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships." - Helen Keller

Friday, September 4, 2009

Spiritual Connections

Another deep need is to connect to something beyond us. I am calling this the need for spiritual connection.

Here it gets tricky. Spirituality means different things to different people. I'm a believer in spiritual diversity and in supporting people who believe very different things. I believe that each person has to find their own spiritual path--and our paths can be very different from each other. I also believe that this means that even atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists have spiritual needs and a spiritual path--and that path is often right in front of them. Often they can't see it because the word 'spiritual' gets in the way.

Even more controversial is that I don't believe that belief in such things as God, heaven, reincarnation, the Goddess, magic, etc, are necessary to have a spiritual connection--although I am not denying the central importance of each of these things for different people. The truth is, I have trouble believing in any of these things (I sometimes refer to myself as 'belief challenged') and yet I can see a spiritual path for myself. My friend, ethicalsusan, who is affiliated with the Ethical Society Without Walls, dislikes being called a nonbeliever. She points out she believes in many things, including people, relationships, and the need for doing good in the world.

I once heard Stephen Levine speak. At one point someone asked him how he defined spirituality. His definition has stayed with me. He simply said, "...openness to the unknown." This is close to my way of approaching spirituality. This is what I've felt gazing at the night sky and realizing how small I was in a universe full of mystery.

I want to be clear that I am not challenging anyone's spiritual beliefs. Just because I don't believe in something doesn't mean that's what's true. I respect each person's beliefs. You could be right; I could be wrong. I am simply trying to find my own way the best that I can.

And that is what I am encouraging each of us to do. We all have needs for spiritual connection. I hope that we can support one another in finding our own path.

Since I believe in the need for spiritual diversity, an inclusive list of spiritual resources could fill pages and pages. I am going to briefly list my own sources of spiritual influence. I invite you to mention yours.

Sourcebooks: the Bible, the Tao Te Ching, The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, and Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Writers that have influenced me over the years: Thomas Merton, Teilhard de Chardin, Joyce Rupp, Martin Buber, Idries Shah, Ram Dass, Stephen Levine, Pema Chödrön, Starhawk, T Thorn Coyle, and Luisah Teish

Quote of the Day: "...spirituality is an intrinsic dimension of human consciousness... the Greek concept of pneuma meant breath or spirit or soul, and spirit comes from the Latin root for 'to breathe'. From one perspective, we realize that we need food, shelter, and clothing; from another that some sort of relationship among people, animals, and the Earth is necessary; from another that we must determine our identity as creatures not only of our immediate habitat but of the world or the universe..." - Charlene Spretnak

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Connecting with Nature

One of the most healing, relaxing, recuperative things we can do is to connect with nature. There is a real need for us, particularly those of us in the city, to find ways of connecting with the earth around us.

It might be as simple as looking out a window at the trees swaying in the breeze. It might be a walk through a woodland trail, with no sight of human habitation around. It might be watching a mountain stream, laughing as it flows over rocks and stones. It might be gazing at the great ocean as it surges over the shore, and seeing how it extends to the horizon and beyond as the sea goes on and on and on. Or it could be lying in a meadow at night, staring up at the stars, and realizing how small this huge earth is in the infinity of space. (I will talk more about this experience in my next post.)

It doesn't matter. For each of us there is a need, beyond our connections to each other, to be connected to nature and the earth itself. In the machinations of this society it is easy to forget that we come from the earth and return to the earth, that this very earth supports us--even if it's buried under asphalt and concrete and linoleum and glass and steel.

This is truly returning to our roots and each one of us needs to see that we are a part of nature and not apart from nature. We need to feel that connection because that connection will heal us--and we can't be whole without it.

Tom Brown, Tom Brown's Field Guide to Living with the Earth--It seems a bit hokey in parts but the introduction and first chapter ('Earthmind') talk clearly about our need to be part of the earth around us
Chellis Glendinning, My Name is Chellis & I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization--I talked at length about this book in my post of 12/26/08, One with Nature 1: Recovery
Starhawk, The Earth Path--I've mentioned this book in a number of my early posts in this segment but it is a clear call to connect with nature along with some steps for doing so; I wrote about The Earth Path in my post of 12/28/08, One with Nature 2: The Path
Henry Thoreau, Walden--A friend of mine told me that her avid love of nature began with reading Thoreau in high school; a 'Thoreauvian' noted that this book influenced the national park system, the hippie revolution, the environmental movement, and the wilderness movement among many other things

Quote of the Day: "...we are not separate from nature but in fact are nature. ... For we are part of the living earth, and to connect with her is to connect with the deepest parts of ourselves." - Starhawk