Friday, December 31, 2010

Love in Action

This will be sort of a wrap up post--at least for this calendar year, although I will be referring to a lot of posts that I wrote through the two and a half years of this blog.

My last post was on the importance of love (Love is the Source, 12/25/10). But in my very early post on Loving-Kindness and Social Change (6/24/08) I pointed out that love wasn't enough. You need to work as well. You need to put love to work.

Freud said, "Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness." Kahlil Gibran puts it even better, "Work is love made visible." So my question is, how do we take our love and make it work in the world?

The first, and a very important way as far as I'm concerned, to put love into action, is through forgiveness. I wrote a post on this a couple of years ago (Forgiveness, 8/7/08) where I quoted Martin Luther King as saying, "Forgiveness is not an occasional act: it is an attitude." Being forgiving and taking an attitude of forgiveness seems a very real way of making love visible.

The Buddhists have some very definite ideas about making love visible. One of these is doing a loving-kindness meditation. (I wrote about this in my posts on Spreading Love, 3/26/10, and Resources for Loving-Kindness, 3/30/10.) They also talk about the 'Brahmaviharas' (or Four Immeasurables/Boundless Virtues/Heavenly Abodes,etc). These are loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity--or as I put it in my post, The Four Gardeners (2/14/2010), simply Love, Compassion, Joy, and Serenity. I later talked about Patience, Forgiveness, Generosity, and Healing, in a post I called And Their Four Offspring (2/24/10), since I saw them proceeding from the four 'boundless virtues'. The more that we practice all of these the more that I think we can spread love in the world.

Rachel Naomi Remen (see my post on Blessings, 3/9/10, and More Blessings, 3/23/10) doesn't talk much about love, but she does talk about blessing others and serving others which I think are marvelous ways of putting love into action. The Dalai Lama uses the phrase 'to benefit others' (see Benefiting Others, 7/21/10) which I think conveys much of the same thing.

Another direct way of showing love is through physical affection--both nonsexual affection and sexual affection. (I have written about this in my posts on Love and Affection, 7/28/08, and Touch, Affection, and Sex, 6/30/09.) In fact, I think any form of closeness can show love. (Also see my post on Intimacy, 7/3/09.)

A great way of demonstrating love and creating closeness is by simply listening. I've written about it in my post on Listening to Each Other (6/7/10). I've also written about it in terms of Stephen Covey's fifth 'habit': 'Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood' (see Seek to Understand, 11/11/10) and in terms of Marshall Rosenberg's 'Nonviolent Communication' (also known as 'Compassionate Communication'--see my post on Nonviolent Communication, 11/25/10). When we really listen to each other, when we truly seek to understand another person, we are doing more than simply showing them respect. In a very real way we are loving them. (I have been studying and trying to practice Tonglen which is a very radical Tibetan Buddhist meditation where you imagine yourself taking in all the hard and awful things in the world, and send out good stuff, like love, joy, and healing. I realized a little while ago that when you can listen to another person's tales of woe--their irritations, upsets, worries, fears, and stories of maltreatment--and respond with compassion and caring, you are doing tonglen.)

Finally, as we go beyond loving each person to loving the whole world--not just the people but the animals and plants and microorganisms and the entire ecosystem--we are truly spreading love. Joanna Macy talks about seeing the 'World as Lover' (see World as Lover, 1/15/10) Yes, I believe that we can love the entire planet--and this means we need to show our love by taking good care of it. I've been thinking a lot about what I will call the great triple love: loving ourselves, loving each other, and loving the world--and in action that becomes caring for ourselves, caring for each other, and caring for the world. This is what I see as major social change, and what I see as love in action.

May you have all the love you could ever want and may you spread much love through the world in this upcoming year.

Quote of the Day: "We cannot avoid Using power,
Cannot escape the compulsion To afflict the world,
So let us, cautious in diction And mighty in contradiction,
Love powerfully." - Martin Buber

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Love is the Source

When I began this blog, my third post was on Loving-Kindness and Social Change (6/24/08). My very first quote in my very first post was from the Dalai Lama, "My religion is kindness." While I've been clear that this blog is about social change, I've also been clear that love, kindness, forgiveness, and compassion are at the base of any real change.

I think that love is at the core of most spirituality. Many religions acknowledge this. In the Gospel of John, Christ tells his apostles to "Love one another." In fact, in the First Letter of John, he says it outright: "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love." This goes all the way back to Leviticus in the Torah, "Love your neighbor as yourself..." Love even extends to our 'enemies'. In Matthew, Christ says to "Love your enemies" and in the Torah, in Exodus, God tells Moses, “If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it." (In other words, be kind and helpful even to those who hate you.)

The Qu'ran begins with the line, "In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate..." and most of the following chapters (or suras) begin with this also. In Islam, in other words, God is mercy and compassion. The Sufis are particularly taken with love. I've heard it said that to the Sufis, God is Love, Lover, and Beloved. In my post on Rumi Night, a few days ago (12/20/10) I quoted from Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, Sufi poet and mystic, "Love comes on strong, consuming herself, unabashed."

The Buddhist scriptures contain a whole piece on Loving-Kindness, the Metta Sutta, which says, "Even as a mother protects with her life, her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart, should one cherish all living beings..." In Hinduism, Bhakti Yoga is focused on love and devotion. Practitioners (according to the Bhagavad Gita) need to be "devoted to the welfare of all beings" and be someone who hates no one, "is friendly and compassionate... and... forgiving". (Chapter 12, The Way of Divine Love)

The witches I've hung around with follow the Charge of the Goddess that proclaims, "My love is poured out upon the earth..." and "...all acts of love and pleasure are My rituals." Thorn Coyle, a witch from the Reclaiming and Feri traditions says that "Love is that which uses the life force well, and for the good of all. ... It is a sharing, the underpinning of life that infuses all."

Some very radical folks also speak highly of love. Emma Goldman called love "the strongest and deepest element in all life, the harbinger of hope, of joy, of ecstasy..." Che Guevara said, "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love." Malcolm X said, "...understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity." And Martin Luther King claimed that "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend."

It's Christmas, which seems to me a celebration of love. Whatever path you follow, may it be a path of love. I believe that love is the source, the very foundation of what we need to do in the world. Whatever you do, do it with love. Loving one another is social change.

Quote of the Day: "The success of love is in the loving - it is not in the result of loving. Of course it is natural in love to want the best for the other person, but whether it turns out that way or not does not determine the value of what we have done..." - Mother Teresa

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Darkness and the Light

I have blogged about the Solstice before (see Winter Solstice, 12/21/08, and Yule, 12/20/09) as well as blogging about darkness (usually at Samhain at the start of November; see Darkness, 11/1/08, and Out of the Darkness, 11/1/09). For me this time of the year is a magical combination of darkness and light.

As un-sustainable and un-ecological as it is, I love the holiday lights and pretty much the gaudier the better. I also love candles and starlight and even bonfires, and I am very aware of how important darkness is to all of these. There is a reason we never see the stars during the day and candles at noon go unnoticed and Christmas lights look silly in daylight and even bonfire are not impressive. We need the darkness to see these lights, and it is the mixture of darkness and light that makes these so inspiring.

This year, the winter solstice was supposed to come with one of the most impressive displays of darkness and light in four hundred years: a full moon with a lunar eclipse right at solstice. Unfortunately, here in New England, we are getting a snowstorm and won't be able to appreciate it. Still the snow is beautiful in its own way and very appropriate for the solstice.

What does any of this have to do with social change? Just that this is why I do my bit towards it--so that we may all have a world where we can appreciate the seasons, and the darkness and the light.

May you have a blessed holiday season whatever you celebrate.

Quote of the Day: "This is the night of Solstice, the longest night of the year. Now darkness triumphs; and yet, gives way and changes into light. ... This is the stillness behind motion, when time itself stops; ... We are awake in the night. We turn the Wheel to bring the light. We call the sun from the womb of night." - Starhawk (Miriam Simos)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Rumi Night

(There will be a break for a while in my series on Survival Resources while I publish some posts on other matters but I have a bunch more to come on it.)

I have been Sufi dancing a lot lately.

On Friday night, my local Sufi group held a Rumi Night. Apparently, December 17th, 1273, was when Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, Sufi poet and mystic, died. Every year at this time, festivals are held in his honor.

We were asked to bring a poem of his and be prepared to recite it. I didn't recite my poem (shy person that I am) but I did memorize one, and I want to post it here:

Love Is Reckless

Love is reckless; not reason.
Reason seeks a profit.
Love comes on strong, consuming herself, unabashed.

Yet, in the midst of suffering,
Love proceeds like a millstone,
hard surfaced and straightforward.

Having died to self-interest,
she risks everything and asks for nothing.
Love gambles away every gift God bestows.

Without cause God gave us Being;
without cause, give it back again.
Gambling yourself away is beyond any religion.

Religion seeks grace and favor,
but those who gamble these away are God's favorites,
for they neither put God to the test
nor knock at the door of gain and loss.

Quote of the Day: "Come, come, whoever you are.
"Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving — it doesn't matter,
"Ours is not a caravan of despair.
"Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times,
"Come, come again, come." - Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi

Monday, December 13, 2010

Survival Resources 2: When Technology Fails

Most people don't stop to think about how reliant we are upon technology; the computer that I'm writing this on and the internet you are reading this on are only a fraction of what we depend on day to day. In New England, whether our houses are heated by gas, oil, or electricity, there is technology behind it. Unless you organically grow all your own food, you are dependent on technology to eat. There is technology behind the water that comes out of our faucets and the toilets that get rid of our waste products. Not to mention how technological our health care system has become.

And what happens if any of that technology stops working? What happens if a disaster occurs? Are we ready to deal with any of it?

The book, When Technology Fails, by Matthew Stein, deals directly with these issues. This is a big, comprehensive (and a bit expensive) overview of what's behind technological uncertainty and ways to cope. It includes checklists, information on 'survival kits', survival strategies and survivor personalities, emergency measures, and lots of information on water, food, shelter, first aid, low-tech medicine, clothing, energy, and much, much more. Stein also talks about 'Making the Shift to Sustainability'--proactive ways of living more sustainably and thoughts of how to help our society shift in that direction. (There is a lot more about this book on its website which has some of the main points of the book, plus ideas and interviews with Matthew Stein.)

When I first skimmed this book, I thought it was a pretty superficial overview--that all the information in here could be found in more detail in other places. Now that I am actually reading it, I am amazed by the detail and careful consideration in it. Of course, there are limits to what can be fit in one book, but the author includes annotated references and resources at the end of each chapter to encourage exploration in more depth.

If you are interested, I'd suggest first checking it out of a library so you can look over it yourself. I know several libraries in my area have the book (although a few have the first addition which, I suspect, is not as comprehensive). If your local library doesn't have this book, you could suggest that they get it. After you've looked through it, you may well decide this is a book you should have--and I would recommend it because I think it would be good to have this on hand as you prepare for possible emergencies.

Quote of the Day: "Disaster prep is like car insurance. Everyone hopes that they will never get into an accident, and will never use their insurance, but they thank God they have insurance if the day comes when they get into a wreck." - Matthew Stein

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Survival Resources 1: The Need

I wrote this summer about the notion that there was a collapse coming and, in fact, we might well be in the middle of it. (See my post, Collapse, 7/5/10.) A friend of mine is organizing a band of people who want to learn survival skills in preparation for a time when things may get worse.

I think this is a really good idea, for several reasons:

First, it's better to prepare for the worst and not have it happen, then not be prepared if something really bad does happen.

Second, these same skills may also be useful even if the bad events that happen are personal or local rather than societal. (For example, a fire or flood or earthquake.) There has been a lot of this happening within the last decade--the destruction of the World Trade Center and Hurricane Katrina being some US examples. Of course, you can argue that much of this is related to societal collapse--the increase in the number and severity of hurricanes being a function of climate change and the attack on the World Trade Center coming in response to the US interventions in the Middle East (which I would argue are related to peak oil).

Finally, many of these skills are also skills related to living simply and sustainably, and I think they will be useful even if the social collapse is slow and gentle--or if it doesn't happen and we need to take this abusive system we live in apart and create something new.

So I am going to spend the next series of posts exploring skills and resources that may be useful as we look at ways to survive no matter what happens.

A final question: What's the difference between what I am talking about and those militant survivalists holing up with years worth of supplies, waiting for the world to end? My answer: Most of those survivalists want to make sure that they survive--or maybe that their families survive. I want to see to it that as many people survive as possible--that we look at the idea of community survival rather than just individual survival. Therefore the wider these ideas are spread the better. I want to see 'a World that Works for Everyone' and I think these tools may help us get there.

Quote of the Day: "...for us all, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive..." - Audre Lorde

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Day of Mourning

This year I took the opportunity to attend an event that I have heard of for many years: the 'National Day of Mourning'.

I wrote last year about my ambivalence about Thanksgiving: on one hand, it's important to be grateful and thankful for all we have, and on the other hand the irony of a holiday where we are grateful for what our ancestors took through genocide and slavery. (See Giving Thanks, 11/26/09.) I mentioned the Day of Mourning that is held by the United American Indians of New England. This year I went.

It's important for white US folks to pay attention to how we ended up with the privileges that we have. When I wrote my series on US History I covered the treatment of those who were living here when the Europeans arrived. (See USH3: Finding a New World, 1/9/09, and USH5: The Nation Grows, 1/17/09.) Basically the native people helped them out and the Europeans enslaved and killed them in return.

For Thanksgiving, 1970, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts held a banquet to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims. An Aquinnah Wampanoag man named Frank James, or Wamsutta, was asked to speak. However, when they got a copy of the speech ahead of time, they 'disinvited' him, claiming "...the theme of the anniversary celebration is brotherhood and anything inflammatory would have been out of place." The inflammatory things that he pointed out included that "The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt's Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians' winter provisions as they were able to carry."

On Cole's Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is a plaque that explains the rest: "Since 1970, Native Americans have gathered at noon on Cole's Hill in Plymouth to commemorate a National Day of Mourning on the US Thanksgiving holiday. Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of the Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in a National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience."

It was an honor to be part of this remembrance. Unfortunately, most of the native people in the US today are among the poorest people in the country. They are still treated badly. We need to change that, just as we need to change the way we treat immigrants, African-Americans, poor and working class people of whatever color, etc, etc. I don't ever want to forget that there were a people living here that are still living here and they cared for the earth and still do. We need to be honoring them, and learning from them, and asking their pardon. We need to do more than just treat them better. We need to support them.

Quote of the Day: "This is a time of celebration for you - celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.
"... We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people." - Wamsutta (Frank) James

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Nonviolent Communication

In my last post (Seek to Understand, 11/11/10) I talked about the connection that I saw between Stephen Covey's ideas about 'Empathic Communication' and Marshall Rosenberg's 'Nonviolent Communication' (also known as 'Compassionate Communication' and 'NVC'). In some ways, Rosenberg's writings seem an expansion of Covey's 'habit' of Seek First to Understand.

There are two parts to NVC: expressing what we want honestly and 'receiving empathically'. In the book Nonviolent Communication, Rosenberg seems to reverse the order that Covey set up in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People as 'Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood'. Marshall Rosenberg begins his book by first teaching people how to communicate requests effectively. There is a chapter each on how to give clear observations, how to express feelings, how to clarify the needs, values, and desires behind the feelings, and how to make clear and reasonable requests. Only after all of this has been described does the book go on to listening. Yet Rosenberg writes, "I would recommend allowing others to fully express themselves before turning our attention to solutions or requests for relief."

I think the reason that the lessons on expressing ourselves come before paying attention to others in the book is because Rosenberg believes that it is essential that we can differentiate observations from evaluations and judgements, that we can tell what is really a feeling from an interpretation disguised as a feeling (he points out that terms like 'misunderstood', 'ignored', and 'abused' are all interpretations, whereas 'hurt', 'sad', 'irritated', and 'discouraged' are real feelings), and that we can identify the needs and beliefs behind feelings rather than putting the responsibility for our feelings on others. The need for this becomes clear as Rosenberg trains us to then listen for feelings and needs as others speak. Similar to Covey, Rosenberg suggests that we should reflect back to others by paraphrasing as well as asking questions that try to clarify the observations, feelings, needs, or requests that we hear in the communication of others.

Not that this is easy to do. I mentioned in my last post that I have become part of a group focusing on learning NVC. One of the members of our small group is a housemate of mine. Unfortunately, at our last house meeting I lost it about some trivial request another housemate was making. She was very attached to doing it one way and we started yelling at each other before I realized that it really wasn't that big a deal and I backed down. Afterwards, the housemate that I am in the group with said to me, "Don't worry, I won't report you to the NVC police." It was pretty funny, but I was also wishing that I had been able to listen to my other housemate's needs and feelings rather than get so caught up in my own stuff. Understanding all this is one thing, actually being able to do it is another.

In another real life example, I was also part of a group that fell apart rather dramatically one evening (with four group members walking out on us). I felt helpless and even think that some of what I did may have made things worse. But one woman in the group was marvelous--she stayed calm and compassionate and really seemed to be listening and being right with each person.

I asked to get together with her in the wake of the group's demise, so we could try to figure out what happened. When I pointed out to her how helpful she had been that evening she said, "I've been studying Nonviolent Communication..." When it works, it's powerful.

Quote of the Day: "I continue to be amazed by the healing power of empathy. ... What is essential is our ability to be present to what's really going on within--to the unique feelings and needs a person is experiencing in that very moment." - Marshall Rosenberg

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Seek to Understand

As I've been reading through Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, very slowly, trying to deeply understand each chapter, each of the habits seems to have resonated with what was going on in my life, right at that time.

Covey's first habit ('Be Proactive') came as I was trying to take control of my life and after being highly influenced by a workshop I took with 'David' (see my post on Deciding, 2/19/10, for more on this). As I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I was reading the chapter on 'Begin with the End in Mind' (see my post, Goals, 5/4/10). Then, as I began to try to figure out how to organize my life, there was his chapter on 'Put First Things First' (which I wrote about in Priorities, 6/26/10). I talked about wanting to take a break from writing about these 'habits' but then I started a thread on this blog about how we could be in a world headed for collapse, which begin focusing on how we could benefit others, and his next chapter, on 'Think Win/Win', fit so beautifully in with this, I had to write about it (see Win/Win, 7/30/10).

Now I have taken a break, mostly because I have been struggling with the content of Covey's next habit--one that may be critical to the way I want to make my life and one that's been very hard to for me to implement. Fortunately, without any planning on my part, a small group coalesced around me and we have been focusing on 'Nonviolent Communication' (aka NVC, which I will write more on in my next post). NVC, which was developed by Marshall Rosenberg, seems a deeper, more developed version of Covey's fifth habit, which he calls, 'Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood'. The amazing back and forth of reading Covey and Rosenberg, reminds me on the way I was supported on learning Covey's first habit by my workshop with David. It's almost as if life really wants me to learn these habits and is giving me the support that I need, right as I need it. (I will talk more about this in my next post.)

Covey talks about four 'autobiographical' (as in, more related to what is going on with us than what the other person is saying) responses that we usually give others: we evaluate (do we agree with this?), we probe (asking questions that come mostly from our own frame of reference), we advise (counseling others from our own experience), or we interpret (figuring others out by how we see motives and behavior).

He also talks about the four stages of what he calls 'empathic listening': the first is just to mimic content--reflect back just what the person is saying. More advanced is to rephrase what the person is saying. Even more advanced is to reflect back the feeling from the person rather than the content. Covey's fourth, and most advanced stage, of empathic listening is to combine a paraphrase of what the person is saying with reflection of the feeling.

Stephen Covey is clear here that this just can't be a technique. You need to be serious and sincere to do this right. That's why this is the fifth habit in the book. All the character building of the first four habits are used here. You need to be real, you need to be present, you need to listen, and you need to let the other person know you are listening through giving them back both the content of what they are saying and the feeling behind it. Sometimes you won't get it right but you need to stay with the person and what they are saying until both of you are clear that you indeed understand.

Beyond this, you need to be able to then make yourself understood, but only after you have let the other person know (through empathic listening) that you have understood them. Covey cites a Greek phrase: ethos, pathos, logos. Ethos is your character, your ethics. Pathos is the emotional, empathic response. Logos is logical, rational side of the explanation. He points out that the order is very important. First, build your character, then, really understand the other person's feelings, and only after all that, apply reasoning to what you are trying to say.

All this is related to his last habit, 'Think Win/Win'. First, you have to believe it's possible. This is how to achieve it.

Quote of the Day: "'Seek first to understand' involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. ...
"Empathic (from empathy) listening gets inside another person's frame of reference. You look out through it, you see the world the way they see the world, you understand their paradigm, you understand how they feel. ...
"Empathic listening is so powerful because it gives you accurate data to work with. Instead of projecting your own autobiography and assuming thoughts, feelings, motives and interpretation, you're dealing with the reality inside another person's head and heart." - Stephen Covey

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Deserving Love

Turil has a blog that I sometimes comment on, just as she sometimes comments on my blog. A little while ago she wrote a post entitled 'Why do you deserve to be loved?' She raises a lot of good points in this post: the fact that many people grow up without understanding that they deserve love and the fact that many who are bullied about their sexuality commit suicide, feeling that they are unlovable. She asked readers to respond to why we deserved to be loved.

My response was (and she asked me to clarify it) was that being loved was our birthright, that we deserve love simply for being human. For me real love is unconditional--we don't 'deserve' it any more than we 'deserve' food or air.

This isn't to say that we always get unconditional love. Unfortunately many parents, who themselves have never gotten unconditional love, put a price on their affection ('I will love you as long as you... ') or, worse yet, give the message to their children that they are unlovable.

But love is not about conditions. Love is not about being good or bad or being any particular way. Love is, as someone said, like the sun, it shines on everyone.

Love is at the core of most religions. According to one source I found on line, it says to 'love your neighbor' eight times in the bible. My favorite is where Jesus say to "love your neighbor as yourself" which, I think, clearly implies that we must love ourselves. Jesus even says to love our enemies. And the Dalai Lama claimed, "My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness." Love, kindness, and compassion are what real spirituality is about.

This is a blog about social change, and I believe that love is also at the heart of real social change. Che Guevara put it, "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love." Love is what changes the world.

It is simple, as far as I'm concerned. Everyone needs love and everyone deserves love.

Quote of the Day: "Love, the strongest and deepest element in all life... Love needs no protection; it is its own protection. So long as love begets life no child is deserted, or hungry, or famished for the want of affection." - Emma Goldman

Monday, November 1, 2010

Death, Decay, and Impermanence

While my spirituality has been changing recently (see my post Evolving My Spirituality, 3/5/10, for more on this), I still have a pagan soul. Each year I have written a post on Samhain (see Darkness, 11/1/08, and Out of Darkness, 11/1/09), which is one of them most important of the pagan and witch feasts.

Samhain (it's a Celtic word and actually pronounced sow-wen) is about darkness, death, and decay. Many believe that it is a time when 'the veil between the worlds is thinnest'. This is the time of the year when the leaves fall and the trees are bare, when the plants die and the earth becomes dormant.

For me this relates strongly to the Buddhist concept of 'impermanence'. (I wrote on Impermanence on 7/9/10.) Nothing is static, everything changes. We are born and we die. We suffer loss. The book that I've been reading by Pema Chödrön is entitled, When Things Fall Apart. And they do.

All this has been brought home to me lately by events in my life. I joined a group looking at how we are traumatized by this society and the group dissolved in conflict. (This brought back painful memories of how the intentional community that I enjoyed the most slowly came apart through constant conflict. See my last post on Post-Mortems.) I tried to bring some healing in the aftermath of the group dissolving and my efforts brought more anger and pain. I went to work on a community garden in a neighborhood in Boston and found everyone in mourning because a young man had been shot dead the night before, two houses away from the garden.

A couple of nights ago I attended a Samhain ritual where the leader reminded us that at anytime we are only seconds away from death and given that, what do we need to do in our little time left.

Death and impermanence are reminders that we need to treat each other well, that we need to value and cherish those around us. They may not be here that long. And we may not be here that long.

Quote of the Day: "When impermanence presents itself in our lives, we can recognize it as impermanence. We don't have to look for opportunities to do this. When your pen runs out of ink in the middle of writing an important letter, recognize it as impermanence, part of the whole cycle of life. When someone's born, recognize it as impermanence. When someone dies, recognize it as impermanence. When your car gets stolen, recognize it as impermanence. When you fall in love, recognize it as impermanence, and let that intensify the preciousness. When a relationship ends, recognize it as impermanence. There are countless examples of impermanence in our lives everyday, from the moment we wake up until we fall asleep and even while we're dreaming, all the time. This is a twenty-four-hour-a-day practice." - Pema Chödrön

Friday, October 29, 2010

Real Models 4: Post-Mortems

I mentioned in my last post (Real Models 3: Other Models) that we can learn a lot from models that aren't around any longer. In this post I want to talk about four attempts at community that I have made and what I learned from each. Therefore, this post will be longer and much more personal than my usual writings.

I dreamed about community for years but my real community adventures began in 1988 when someone visiting my then housemate turned to me and said, "If you really want to build community, you should talk with R."

R was a man in the same political group that I was in and I knew him vaguely. I was not particularly impressed with him but I really wanted community and at that point would talk with anyone.

The day I got together with R, the two of us laid out the parameters (personal growth, social change, spiritual diversity) that would guide our community building together over the next twelve years.

Our first attempt at community happened the next year. There were 4 of us (myself, R, a man I'll call C, and a woman, J) rented an apartment (with space for six) and embarked on a very structured, detailed attempt at community. Community1 lasted six months--by that time J had left and another woman, V, had joined us, only to see the community fall apart just after she became part of it. Two learnings I got from this were to get the people before trying to build community, and not to try to do everything all at once, right from the beginning.

But R and C and I all wanted to try doing it again. In looking for a place to live, I ended up sharing an apartment with A, a man that I came to really like and still one of my best friends. After I moved in with A, I kept talking about the community we had built and how we wanted to do it again, and I got A intrigued. Eventually, R and C and I gathered a group of people (including A) and we began holding events and formally organized ourselves as Community2. Everyone was interested in personal growth, social change, and spirituality, and everyone was also interested in community. We got to know each other very well over the course of the next couple of years. (Unfortunately, during this time, C, who early on helped us find many of these people, became less involved with the group.) Finally, having built a network of folks and some trust among each other, R and I approached the others suggesting that we all live together.

That's when we discovered that although everyone said they wanted community, there were at least four different ideas among us about what community was. R and I saw it as us all living together rather communally. Others saw it as us living in close proximity to each other but everyone having their own space (what I will call the 'cohousing' model). At least one person thought that just doing all the events we were doing was the community--we didn't need to do anything more. (I think of this as the 'network' model--community as people involved with each other's lives through get togethers, etc.) But it seemed like the bulk of the folks responded to R and me by saying this was all new to them, they were learning so much about community from us, they weren't sure what they wanted to do, and, by the way, they thought they might be moving out to California next year.

Ironically, Community2, lasted (as a network) for over fifteen years--even though that wasn't the community R and I wanted. A real learning from this is that community evolves, often in ways that you can't predict.

Finally, as R and I were considering just having a place with the two of us, we found some folks (especially S and her family) who were really interested in what we were talking about. Five of us (myself, R, S, her then husband, G, and a woman I'll call P) spent a year planning a structured, communal community--but one that would begin simply and grow more detailed as we went along, unlike the 'do-it-all-at-once' approach of Community1.

Community3 lasted five years. Although there was a core of three of us (R, S, and I) the rest of the cast changed from year to year, eventually including A (my housemate from when Community1 collapsed). A became close with both R and S as well as me and we were hopeful he would become part of our core group. But after what I saw as a wonderful year and most of my housemates saw as a very stressful year (there was lots of conflict during the whole life of the community, but that year was particularly bad), we were left with six of us: myself, R, S, A, and S's two children. (By this time S and I were a couple.) We decided to keep it that way for a year while we regrouped and looked for some new people.

Midway through the year (after some unsuccessful attempts at finding others) R announced that he didn't want to do this any more. This was very painful (for different reasons) for S and I. We turned to A, hoping he would help us rebuild community, but he said that he had realized that he didn't want to live with that many people again. Eventually, the house (which had been a three family) reverted to three units with R having one unit, A having another, and S and I and the kids having the third. S and I had always seen our relationship as being part and parcel of community and so this wasn't what either of us wanted. (I made jokes at this time about unintentional nuclear families, but I wasn't laughing. I was as close to being depressed as I ever have been in my life.) It felt like we never had the critical mass we needed (beyond the core group of myself, S, and R) and one learning from this experience was a truism--you can't build community without people. Having looked at other communities since, I also think that while we were bothered by the ebb and flow of people during the five years of Community3, this is a normal part of most communities and while a stable core is what grounds a community, you have to expect continual change.

Eventually, S and I realized that she wanted to try living on her own with the kids and I wanted to still find community, and I moved into the first of several co-ops that I have lived in since. Co-ops are nice but they are not the communal community that I am looking for.

After life in a couple of them (and just as I was considering just moving to Twin Oaks!), I met two folks from Vermont that seemed to want community. Thus began the attempt at building Community4. These two convinced me to trust them and go with the flow and not try to plan at all--all of which ended up with me realizing (after we had bought a house together) that what they wanted wasn't what I wanted at all. Like Community1, this was a six-month disaster. I did learn that while it's not always a good idea to structure everything beforehand, it's also not a good idea not to be clear, at least about your bottom lines.

So this leaves me, once again, living in a co-op and wanting community. I am seeking others who want it as much as I do--but I am also clear about my bottomlines (unsurprising to anyone who follows this blog, I'm looking for simple, sustainable community). Recently someone who knew me through these adventures asked me if I really wanted to keep doing this and did I think I would ever find community? My answers are yes I do and, really, I don't know. I hope so, but at this point the pursuit of community needs to be worthwhile to me, because it's all I have for now.

Quote of the Day: "Community, particularly intentional community, has been a bitter experience for many people and we ignore that fact at our peril. ...
"It is painfully clear that however sincere we may be in our attempt to community ideals into practice, these efforts do not, by themselves, create that better society we are striving for. Noble intentions and community involvement do not automatically free us of the baggage that we all carry with us... This contradiction has spelled the end of countless experiments in collectivity, with some people coming to the tragic--and mistaken--conclusion that such alternatives run counter to human nature.
" order to make possible the fundamental changes in our all relations which alone can form the basis of viable communities, we need to continually develop our understanding of what must be changed and why, as well as our determination to live and interact differently in our daily lives.
"...integrating action and reflection is, I think, necessary for building sustainable and life-affirming communities." - Helen Forsey

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Real Models 3: Other Models

Although I concentrated on Twin Oaks (and other FEC communities) and Gaviotas in my last two posts (9/30/10 and 10/6/10), I want to make it clear that they are far from the only models out there. In this post I want to explore a variety of other models--some of them not as close to my simple, equal, communal, and sustainable society as I might like but all of them real, interesting, and holding lots that we can learn from. To use John Michael Greer's term again, here we have more Dissensus in Action. (See my post of 9/27/10 for more on the term and a very different example of dissensus.)

To begin with, there is the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. The FIC (a much larger and more expansive organization than the FEC) tries to be open to all types of 'Intentional Communities', which it defines as "an inclusive term for ecovillages, cohousing communities, residential land trusts, communes, student co-ops, urban housing cooperatives, intentional living, alternative communities, cooperative living, and other projects where people strive together with a common vision." Their website includes a directory which list hundreds of 'ecovillages, communes, cohousing, and co-ops'. Diversity and dissensus, indeed.

Aside from the FEC communes, I'd like to single out one very different, very long term community, The Farm in Tennessee. Here is another example of a 'hippy commune' that hasn't disappeared and is in fact flourishing, with around 200 residents and a variety of organizations serving its principles of nonviolence, respect for the environment, and living lightly on the earth. It is, however, an example of a community that has evolved and gone through great changes as it evolved. It began as a very communal spiritual community under the leadership of Stephen Gaskin, who had been teaching a class in San Francisco on psychedelic experiences and world religions called the 'Monday Night Class'. Over time, and especially through rethinking and reorganization in the eighties, it became a more democratic and less communal model. It currently bills itself as an ecovillage and is involved in many service projects throughout the world.

Going from the communal to the more individual, I want to point out the Riot for Austerity as an example of a group of people who took on the goal of living (at least temporarily) at the level of 1/10th of what the average American lives on. (For more on these folks, read my post of 9/28/08, called Riot!) Another inspiration to me is man named Colin Beavan, who calls himself 'No Impact Man' and began by attempting to live in a way that would cause 'no net impact on the environment' while living in New York City. His attempt to do this with his family in tow has been made into a book and a movie.

Some of the most amazing groups, as far as I'm concerned, focusing on sustainablity are the Rhizome Collective in Austin, TX (which is in the process of undergoing some major changes) and the Radix Ecological Sustainability Center in Albany, NY, and the training they have created which is called RUST--Radical Urban Sustainability Training.[] (I've written about the Radix Center and RUST in my post entitled RUST, 7/13/10.)

A somewhat different group that also focuses on sustainability is out in Portland, OR. City Repair believes "that localization - of culture, of economy, of decision-making - is a necessary foundation of sustainability." These folks do 'intersection repair', 'de-paving', natural building, and 'placemaking'. They also hold a Village Building Convergence every year.

Another vision of what can be done is Growing Power, an urban farm and greenhouse in Milwaukee, WI that states its mission as "Inspiring communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time." It involves young people, elderly, farmers, and community folks, and has expanded to include farms in Chicago and rural Wisconsin, and is networking with farmers across the US through their Rainbow Farmers Cooperative. Boston's version of this is The Food Project, which I wrote about in my post on Feeding Ourselves in the Future, 7/24/08.

We can also learn from real models that are no longer around. Many community groups have been inspired by the utopian communites of the nineteenth century. For anyone who thinks that the hippies in the sixties were the first to build communes that practiced 'free love', some of these groups may be a revelation. Above all we should know that these models are really not new. (One of my favorite models is the Diggers from seventeenth century England.) For more on communities in the 1800s, see my post on Utopian Communities and New Religious Groups, 1/25/09.

Two experiments in sustainability from the 1970s are also models for me. The Integral Urban House was a project begun in 1974 in Berkeley, CA, that included solar power, composting toilets, a vegetable garden, chickens, rabbits, and beehives, all in an integrated system. The book, The Integral Urban House, recently republished by New Society Publishers, is a classic of eco-homesteading. At around the same time on the east coast of the US, the New Alchemy Institute was exploring "renewable energy, agriculture aquaculture, housing and landscapes." New Alchemy lasted twenty years (from 1971 to 1991) and was a major influence on many of the ideas I and other people have on sustainable living.

When I think about the utopian communities of the 1800s and the eco-experiments of the 1970s, I try to learn what worked, and what didn't, as well as why they ended. I think these 'post-mortems' can be useful before you try new experiments, and I will focus on this (on some of the living experiments that I've done) in my next post.

I know there are lots more models out there, and I am feeling pressed for time these days. But I do want to single out some Boston area (ie, local to me) models that are inspiring me. First of all there is the eco-homestead of my friends who do the DIO Skillshare. These folks live very simply and sustainably--growing most of their own food, collecting rainwater, reusing waste materials, and living with very low consumption, and they do this in an urban setting. Similarly, the JP GreenHouse crew try to also live as sustainably as they can. (I've written a bit about them in my post on Passive House, 1/24/10.) Haley House began in 1966 as an radical, spiritual attempt to help the homeless, and now has a live-in community, a soup kitchen, food pantry, low-income housing program, bakery training program, and organic farm. They model integrating service, social justice, and spirituality. And finally, the Pueblo group in Jamaica Plain models community building on a neighborhood level. I have been working with them to create a community garden from an abandoned piece of land near Egleston Square. They are encouraging relationships between people living around there and also encouraging people to buy houses in the area. They are looking into land trusts and other ways of creating community ownership.

All these groups and more are models of what can be done. Now we just need to get more people to do it.

Next: Post-mortems, what we can learn from no longer functioning alternatives.

Quote of the Day: "An appropriate symbol for the process of celebrating life, enduring limits, and resisting injustice ... is the beloved community.... The beloved community names the matrix within which life is celebrated, love is worshipped, and partial victories over injustice lay the groundwork for further acts of criticism and courageous defiance." - Sharon Welch

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Real Models 2: Gaviotas

In 1971, a Columbian visionary made a decision. As he put it, "They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places. We wanted the hardest place. We figured if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere." The place that Paolo Lugari selected was in the middle of the empty savannas east of Bogota. He recruited scientists, crafters, engineers, technicians, thinkers, inventors, artists, laborers, local peasants, and homeless street children. They built a sustainable community in this desolate prairie setting, using solar power, wind power, and very innovative technology. They called it Gaviotas after a river bird native to the region.

One of the problems that these dreamers faced as they were building Gaviotas was getting water. Brackish water was all around them but there was a water table filled with clean fresh water beneath the land--all they needed to do was pump it out. Rather than using pumps that ran on electricity or fossil fuels, the technicians invented a bunch of pumps that ran on various types of manual labor. My favorite was one that was attached to a seesaw, so that the village children would pump water as they went up and down.

More impressive than the tools the Gaviotans created is the planting work that they did. Beyond simply planting food, they planted trees, including a Caribbean pine tree that slowly took to the savanna. In ten years, they transformed grassland into the beginnings of a rainforest. Species that had nearly disappeared from Columbia began appearing in their forest. In fact the native species were crowding out the imported pines--and it seems like an amazon type jungle (and the Amazon region lies due south of Gaviotas) is slowly emerging.

All this makes the process sound easy. The process is documented in the book Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World by Alan Weisman and it was anything but easy. The Gaviotans tried many, many experiments and almost as many were failures as were successes. But they worked together, replacing hierarchy and competition with solidarity and community. The twists and turns as Gaviotas emerged remind me of the twists and turns Kat Kinkade chronicled in her books on Twin Oaks. (See my last post on Twin Oaks.)

Reading Weisman's book makes me want to be able to experiment with others and build community. Sure for every place like Twin Oaks and Gaviotas that succeeds, a dozen crash and burn. Yet, like the Gaviotans that made progress by failure after failure and keeping going, the only way to create a new future is to try new things, and when something doesn't work, try something else.

Twin Oaks and Gaviotas are each unique in their own way, and hardly blueprints for anything else. But they are models of real, thriving alternatives. The only way we will create real social change is to have the courage to follow new paths, to persist (as both Twin Oaks and Gaviotas did) even when things aren't going well, and to have a vision that will sustain us. These are real models to hold onto and be inspired by, even as we forge new and different models for our own unique situations.

Quote of the Day: "Gaviotas isn't a utopia. Utopia literally means 'no place'. ... We call Gaviotas a topia, because it's real. We've moved from fantasy to reality." - Paolo Lugari

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Real Models 1:Twin Oaks

The Transition Initiative and all the Green Wizardry stuff I talked about in my last post (Dissensus in Action, 9/27/10), are directions and responses to things like peak oil, climate change, rampant consumerism, and various social ills. Most of the ideas for social change that I've written about fit into this category: we could or should do this or that.

A another way of looking at things is to create models of what a different world would look like. Some examples of this are the various utopian visions that are out there. (For more on fictional utopias see my posts on Why read Utopian Fiction?, 7/12/08, and An Annotated Utopia, 7/14/08. For a bit on some historical utopias, see Utopian Communities and New Religious Groups, 1/25/09.) There are lots of visions of how things could be but real life examples are harder to come by.

As far as I'm concerned, one example of how things might function in a very different way can be drawn from the various communities in the Federation of Egalitarian Communities. (For more on the FEC, see my post on Egalitarian Communities, 10/22/08.) For this post I want to focus on Twin Oaks, a community in Virginia and FEC member that was founded in 1967.

For those who make fun of the ephemeral nature of most of the hippie communes of the sixties, Twin Oaks has been around for 43 years now and is going strong. Kat Kinkade, one of the founders of Twin Oaks, chronicles the beginning of the community in her book, A Walden Two Experiment. (Yes, the inspiration for Twin Oaks was BF Skinner's fictional utopia.) In a chapter on 'The First Two Years...', she gives a month by month recitation of the events involved in establishing Twin Oaks. By her account there were several points where they almost didn't make it.

Kat Kinkade's second book on Twin Oaks, Is It Utopia Yet?, is a good overview of how Twin Oaks operates (although it's a bit dated now, since it was published in 1994). I've been to Twin Oaks a couple of times, and know other people who have as well, and it's a fascinating place. I strongly suggest that anyone interested in creating alternatives to this society read these books, not because I think we should duplicate Twin Oaks (it has become so idiosyncratic that it would be hard to duplicate) but because the process and community evolution is laid out so clearly, warts and all. Creating this type of situation isn't easy, and Kat Kinkade made that clear in the books. But reading these books inspires me because if they could do it, others could do it. And, as I said, Twin Oaks is still growing and evolving. (Unfortunately, Kat Kinkade, who was in on the founding, not only of Twin Oaks, but of the FEC, and FEC member communities, East Wind and Acorn, died in 2008.) Twin Oaks and the various other FEC member communities provide real models of how we could be doing things. None of them are utopia, but all of them are real.

Quote of the Day: "Obviously Twin Oaks isn't Paradise. ... Ordinary mortals can't create Paradise. We can, however, strive for Utopia. Never mind that we haven't quite got there yet. We're working on it." - Kat Kinkade

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dissensus in Action

Last month I wrote a post about John Michael Greer's new project, Green Wizardry (8/26/10). I was very excited about what I saw as an attempt to spread skills and pull new people into the alternative energy/organic farming/re-skilling/post oil movement. One group that's been doing a lot of work around this in the Transition Initiative. (See my post on Transition Towns, 8/16/08.)

Therefore, I was quite surprised to find one of the founders of the Transition Initiative, Rob Hopkins, wrote a post that was quite critical of the idea of green wizardry. I found out about it because John Michael Greer (JMG from here) wrote a post in response.

The back and forth between these two is fascinating and actually underlines (as several people have noted) a concept that I have picked up from JMG: dissensus. I wrote a bit about dissensus in my post on What Gives Me Hope (12/30/08).

Briefly, dissensus (the opposite of consensus) is about having a variety of opinions, methods, and/or practices and not trying to reconcile them. I related it to the old statement of 'agreeing to disagree'. Dissensus is important when things are unclear (like what life might be like in a post oil future) because who knows what will work. (Rob Hopkins is the first to admit that he's not sure that the Transition Initiative will work.) Dissensus, in a nutshell, is diversity in action.

The Transition movement and the Green Wizards project are very different approaches to the idea we need to move beyond fossil fuels--and certainly not the only ones. Reading the posts of these two men who have thought so much about possible futures is an education unto itself, including their critiques of each others ideas. Even better is reading the comments of their readers, many of whom pointed out the importance of valuing both approaches.

If you want to expand your ideas about possibilities for the future, I can't imagine a better way than reading these two posts and all the comments. Here is a variety of ways to go--true dissensus in action.

Quote of the Day: "Clearly Transition, Green Wizardry, Low Carbon Communities, engagement in local politics, green social enterprises, etc. etc, are all approaches that might, hopefully, combine into a viable response. I agree entirely that putting 'all our eggs in one basket' would be fatal, and have always argued for Transition as one response, not THE response, not ‘the only show in town’. Heaven forbid. My sense is that this exchange has highlighted the areas where Transition and green wizardry overlap, which has been very useful." - Rob Hopkins

Monday, September 20, 2010

From the Ground Up

For the last thirty years of my life I have thought of myself as a radical. Liberals and reformers assume that the system has problems but can be repaired. Radicals (from Radix, root) believe that the system is beyond repair and we need to return to the roots, to start all over from the ground up.

This isn't to say that there isn't a lot of useful stuff in various reform movements--as Joanna Macy points out, one of the three intertwined strategies of the Great Turning (see my post on The Great Turning, 11/15/09) is "Actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings". But she also talks about "A Shift in Consciousness" and "...the creation of structural alternatives". As I've pointed out here on several occasions, I see a need to build something quite different from what we have now (see Creating Social Change, 7/2/08), and to build it from the bottom up (see Social Change: My View, 6/29/10).

My vision is of intentional communities of people creating alternatives, living simply, equally, and sustainably, (see Interconnections, 10/20/08) growing food, using fewer resources, composting and creating no waste, helping each other, and healing each other. As part of this we need to find new ways of relating to each other and new ways of relating to the earth, the world, and becoming part of the world, the whole ecosystem. Just one integrated part of the whole.

These thoughts were inspired by my recent time of being sick and lying in bed reading. I have been re-reading My Name is Chellis & I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization (see One with Nature 1: Recovery, 12/26/08). I'm also continuing to read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (see my posts on Deciding, 2/19/10, Goals, 5/4/10, Priorities, 6/26/10, and Win/Win, 7/30/10) and The Rodale Book of Composting. An odd combination, you might think. And it seems that way, especially if you try to find a link between The 7 Habits and composting. But Chellis's book is that link. She talks about our need to find better relations with each other and better relations with the earth. Composting is a natural process. So is reaching out to each other and trying to communicate with each other. (I will write a post soon on the Habit I have been working on, "Seeking First to Understand" which Covey also refers to as Empathic Communication. It's probably not an accident that at the same time I am doing some growth work with a couple of other people and we are currently focusing on Marshall Rosenberg's book, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Nor that as I am working my way slowly through Pema Chodron's book, When Things Fall Apart, the section that I come to as I'm doing all this is on 'Widening the Circle of Compassion'. Her claim: "There's nothing more advanced than communication--compassionate communication." Incidently, 'compassionate communication' was an alternate name used for Marshall Rosenberg's techniques.)

I've said over and over again that everything is connected. I see all the social movements from civil rights (see USH18: Starting the Sixties, 3/10/09 and USH19: It All Breaks Loose, 3/14/09) to the transition initiatives (see Transition Towns, 10/16/08) as pointing us toward something, just as I see the work of Covey and Rosenberg and others, and ideals of the Buddhists and Sufis and Quakers and Pagans and Witches and Renewal Jews and Liberation Christians as pointing us toward something. Something new and radical, something that guides us in an alternative direction, toward a different kind of world. A blueprint, if you will, for building a new way of living. From the ground up.

Quote of the Day: "This urge to wholeness is with us still; in the face of runaway psychological dysfunctions and ecological disasters it is emerging now with perhaps more urgency and effervescence than ever. Many of the social and cultural movements of the twentieth century are expressions of it: Gandhian nonviolence, the worker's movement of the 1930's, the kibbutz, Martin Luther King, Jr., the anti-war efforts, the hippies and yippies, the women's movement, the human potential movement, back-to-the-land, natural foods, Earth Day, permaculture, bioregionalism, the men's movement, voluntary simplicity. So too is the vast arising of passion for spiritual pursuits: Tibetan Buddhism, drumming circles, wilderness quests. And then there are today's social and psychological uprisings: the call for democracy and environmental justice, ... the rising of indigenous identity and self-empowerment.
"...let us be clear, at heart these effort express an irrepressibly human desire for a return to a state that can be known to us by the documentation of history, but that most especially resides in our memory, intuition, and dreams. ... The psychological qualities we so painstakingly aim for with our therapy sessions and spiritual practices are the very qualities indigenous people have always assumed. The social attributes we struggle to attain with our social-justice movements are the very ones that defined nature-based cultures for 99 percent of our existence as human beings.
"By all accounts, we want to recover from western civilization." - Chellis Glendinning

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Yes, it's been a while since I posted anything here. I've been sick for a bit, but since I'm feeling better, and have thought of a bunch more things to write about, here we go again.

This is another topic I can't believe I haven't written on long ago. Well, I did write bit about it in my post on Transportation (8/17/09, part of my series on our real needs), but I think it deserves its own post. I will try not to duplicate much of what I wrote in my Transportation post.

How is riding a bicycle part of social change? To start with, if you believe in peak oil, human powered vehicles (such as bikes) make a lot of sense. Bike riding doesn't contribute to climate change. Better yet, bicycle riding is simple as well as sustainable.

I ride very frequently: to work (in the nicer weather), to Boston to be involved in activities, to the co-op and farmer's market for shopping (in the Transportation post I mentioned my delight in living in a house where we have a bike trailer that can carry six bags of groceries), and even to my relatives, who live many miles away, but I can take a commuter train to stations relatively near their houses, and then bike the rest of the way (since bicycles are allowed on the commuter rail). I don't own a car and while I do have to pay for occasional bike repairs, I don't have to pay for: gas, insurance, parking, parking tickets, traffic citations, car repairs, maintenance, etc. I think that using a bike rather than a car probably saves me hundreds of dollars a year. Not to mention what it saves the environment.

It may save me money on doctor's bills as well. At the least, it's great exercise. And at one point I needed to go to see a specialist in a distant part of town about a question about my lungs. When she found out how far I had biked to see her, she said that she didn't think that I needed extensive tests, considering how 'athletic' I was. (Which is the first and only time I've heard that word applied to me!)

Imagine how different things would be if most people biked instead of riding in cars.

And if you think that you are too old to learn to ride a bicycle, my friend Susan McLucas runs a Bicycle Riding School which specializes in teaching adults how to ride. (She's had students as old as in their 80s and from all across the US.)

Yes, I think that bicycle riding is part of social change, if only because the automobile is so much a part of the society that we're trying to change.

Quote of the Day: "McLucas is an activist who has protested more than one war and who 11 years ago started the nonprofit Healthy Tomorrow to end the mutilation of women's genitals in Mali. Teaching people to cycle is a sort of activism, too: 'It's part of getting rid of cars,' she said, 'and making bikes rule the world.'" - Emma Brown

Friday, September 3, 2010

Going Organic

With all I've written about food and growing things, it's a bit strange that I haven't written specifically about organic agriculture until now.

For some reason, growing food organically is generally perceived as a bit exotic. It's often differentiated from 'conventionally grown' produce, a name that makes it sound like using tons of pesticides and chemical fertilizer was the way things had always been grown. In fact, organic gardening is really the most basic way of growing anything, and the way that food was always grown until recently. It's probably the way that you would grow vegetables in your yard if you were just starting out. It's generally about planting seeds, watering, and occasion weeding or other simple plant care.

There are lots of problems with 'conventional agriculture'. First of all, pesticides and chemical fertilizers are made from oil. And with a future where oil might be harder to come by (see my posts on Peak Oil, 7/18/08, Peak Everything, 7/20/08, and Collapse, 7/5/10), I think organic gardening is more than just a tradition from the past; it's likely to be the wave of the future as well.

Also, pesticides are dangerous. A recent study linked pesticide exposure in mothers to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in their children. There have also been studies about the harmful effects of pesticides on children and farmworkers. In addition there is an enormous impact on the environment.

And chemical fertilizers don't help the environment either. They have been been implicated in eutrophication and can actually damage the plants if too much fertilizer is added.

While apparently there hasn't been a lot of difference found between conventional and organic produce in term of nutritional quality, there is a lot of difference in terms of its effect on the environment and farmworkers.

Occasionally there's a choice that needs to be made between buying organic food trucked in from far away and buying locally, grown non-organic food. If I really have to make a choice, I'd probably go with the local but not organic. But buying food that's local and organic is so much better. And if oil supplies get tight, we may not have much choice anyway. We might as well eat local and organic as much as we can now and prepare for how we'll be eating tomorrow.

Quote of the Day: "The foundation of the chemical agriculture and chemical fertilizer industry rests on the assumption that what a plant removes from the soil can be analyzed and replaced in chemical form. Though this would seem to be a logical assumption, it fails to take into account the complex biological processes and mechanisms through which the chemical transactions are performed, processes and mechanisms aided by finely tuned and highly specialized living organisms whose operations cannot be duplicated or even completely understood. In general, the use of synthetic fertilizers short-term rapid growth for long-term gain in structure and soundness." - Deborah Martin and Grace Gershuny

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I've blogged a bit on Permaculture (7/22/08) and Permaculture Principles (12/24/09). It's amazingly useful stuff.

I was recently reading Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay's book, Introduction to Permaculture, which begins with a chapter on 'Permaculture Principles'. The principles were all familiar to me (in one form or another) and all listed at the beginning of the chapter--except two, which are snuck in at the end. These are referred to as 'Attitudinal Principles'. The authors go on to say that the principles that they've outlined so far " with the site, or the environment, or the actual design. The following are people-oriented principles, and deal with the principles of attitude." (Italics in the original.)

The first 'attitudinal principle' is "Everything Works Both Ways". According to them, "Every resource is either an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the use made of it. ... Disadvantages can be viewed as 'problems' and we can take an energy-expensive approach to 'get rid of the problem', or we can think of everything as being a positive resource: it is up to us to work out just how we can make use of it."

If you are having trouble imagining how you might use some things, that may in itself be the problem. Their second principle is "Permaculture is Information and Imagination-Intensive". The authors say that "Permaculture is not energy- or capital-intensive... It is the quality of the thought and information we use that determines the yield, not the size or quality of the site. We are using not only our physical resources, but our ability to access information and to process it."

Of course, these principles (like much in permaculture) are not limited to agriculture or growing things. Some of this reminds me of Stephen Covey's ideas, especially 'Think Win/Win' (see my post on Win/Win, 7/30/10) and a habit I haven't really delved into yet, that he simply calls 'Synergize' (or Creative Cooperation). A lot of this is simply saying that the most useful tool we have is creativity (or what Richard Heinberg terms, 'ingenuity' and 'artistry'--see my posts on Peak Everything, 7/20/08, and Scarcity and Abundance, 8/11/10). Seeing everything as a possible solution and using our imagination and all the information we can gather, means there is a lot more possible than we may think at first. It's all in our attitude.

Quote of the Day: "Information is the most portable and flexible investment we can make in our lives; it represents the knowledge, experience, ideas, and experimentation of thousands of people before us. If we take the time to read, observe, discuss, and contemplate, we begin to think in terms of multidisciplines, and to design systems which save energy and give us yields.
"... The only limit on the number of uses of a resource possible within a system, is in the limit of the information and imagination of the designer." - Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Green Wizardry

I've written about John Michael Greer a number of times, most recently in my post about Collapse, 7/5/10. His blog, The Archdruid Report has been a major influence on me and this blog. (I wrote a review of The Archdruid Report on 8/5/08 and another post on some of his ideas, entitled A Magical Way of Thinking, on 8/3/08.) He is usually up to something interesting in his blog, and I think that his current explorations are a very different, fascinating way of looking at some of the things I've been writing about. He is quite deliberately repackaging them (and I am talking about ecosystem thinking, appropriate technology from the seventies, scientific theories about matter, energy, and information, composting, mulching, and, in his latest installment, Two Agricultures, Not One, the difference between extensive farming and intensive gardening) as a training program for 'Green Wizards'.

Beginning with his 6/30/10 post Merlin's Time, Greer outlines a curriculum for modern day wizards. He admits that he wants "to have a certain amount of fun with the wizard archetype in the posts to come. Still, that’s an example of what the Renaissance alchemist Michael Maier called a lusus serius, a game played in earnest, a dead serious joke." He talks about creating a 'grimoire', a 'book of ancient and forgotten lore'. Playing with the work of horror/fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft, who makes frequent references to a book he calls the Necronomicon, Greer proposes to call his grimoire the Gaianomicon, a book “concerning the laws of Gaia”. He suggests that his readers study it "with the same total intensity your average twelve-year-old Twilight fan lavishes on sparkly vampires." He also suggests they "obsess about the way an old-fashioned computer geek obsesses about obscure programming languages."

In some ways, I feel that he is trying to appeal to gamers and fantasy folks as well as the eco-types. And why not? We need to pull new people into the endeavor of social change, and these are bright folks who are willing to put a lot of effort into things. I hung out with the Trekkers at one point and almost got sucked into putting on a costume and pretending I was on a starship. Why not get them to use the energy they put into pretend earth saving into real earth saving? If you can devote your life to acting out space battles or magical quests, why not devote it to something that will make a real difference?

Some people may object and say that he is making light of a very serious situation, one where people are talking about the possibility of starvation and 'die-offs'. I think this is brilliant, a great way of coping with something that could be awful, without getting sunk in it. It reminds me of stories that I've heard about the Holocaust where parents who tried to flee the Nazis with their young children would try to make a game of it. "Now see how quiet you can be as we walk through here. Remember, you don't want to get caught."

I do think that the times ahead are going to be difficult and I also think a light touch may be just what we need. If the Archdruid can recruit a bunch of 'green wizards', (and he might, considering Blogger claims he has 1140 followers,) and can teach them a whole lot of practical skills under the guise of wizardry, then I am all for it. Goodness knows we are going to need all the help we can get.

Quote of the Day: "What’s needed ... is a Gaianomicon... if you will, a manual of the theory and practice of applied human ecology. Like Lovecraft’s tome, the Gaianomicon exists only in fragments, and your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to gather enough of those fragments to make a start on your education as a green wizard." - John Michael Greer

Monday, August 23, 2010

What If?

I have a cartoon that someone sent to a mailing list I'm on. It shows a 'Climate Summit' where the speaker is pointing out the benefits of change: "Energy independence, preserving rainforests, sustainability, green jobs, livable cities, renewables, clean water, clean air, healthy children, etc, etc" and some guy stands up and says, "What if it's a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?"

This pretty much sums up the way that I feel about climate change and peak oil and all those controversial things. I mostly believe in them, but I also think that it doesn't matter whether they are right or wrong. What if climate change doesn't happen? What if peak oil is fifty or a hundred years off, or doesn't happen at all? What if we create a simple, sustainable world filled with equality and community and peak oil and climate change turn out to be myths? So what? I'm not supporting social change because I'm worried about climate change. I'm not pushing sustainability just because I think peak oil is coming. Whether peak oil happens or climate change happens, I know we need to change how we are living. As far as I am concerned, a lot of the way that we are living now is just plain wrong, and I truly believe that a better world is possible.

Of course, if we make those changes and we lessen climate change and are prepared for peak oil, so much the better. But I'm not going to worry about all the big questions of the future. I'd rather make the changes out of hope for making a better world than fear of things getting worse. I am well aware that fear will motivate some people to change, and I am okay with that. I don't care why you make the changes, I just want to see us moving in a positive direction.

I know I'm going to keep working for the world that I want to see no matter what. What motivates you to make changes? What if climate change was a myth? What if peak oil never happens? Are you still going to want to change?

Quote of the Day: "When you have your vision, that's one step; as you go through one, it'll go to the next step. And if you follow it, nothing gonna be unturned; everything will work in place." - Rachel Edna Bagby

Friday, August 20, 2010

Compost Happens!

For my birthday this year I taught a workshop on composting. Well, almost. It was actually my birthday (although no one but me knew it) and I was asked to give a workshop on composting but warned (because it's the summer) no one might show up. As it turned out, a few people did show up and we had an informal and meandering discussion on compost (among other things). I did have a handout which I gave out and that's the material below. Most of it has been taken from other handouts I've gotten. (I've also talked some about composting in my post about Waste, 5/25/09.)

Yard waste and food scraps make up almost a third of our household waste. Composting turns them into rich, earthy organic material that improves the soil and nurtures plants. It also stops organic stuff from going into landfills where it gives off methane, which is a lot more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide!

There are many different ways of composting, but the most important thing to know, is that it's not hard. Whatever you do, compost will happen. Organic stuff is just going to decay. There are things you can do to make it faster, and less smelly and messy, but it's going to turn into compost whatever you do.

Of course, you don't want your compost to smell bad. To make certain that it isn't going to be smelly or messy, you want to be sure that what you are composting gets plenty of fresh air, and that you mix things with a lot of nitrogen (often called 'greens' or wet stuff) with things that have a lot of carbon (often called 'browns' or dry stuff—however, some brown stuff, like manure, is actually high in nitrogen). Food scraps are high in nitrogen so it's good to mix them with dry leaves, or saw dust, or wood chips, or paper towels, or cardboard, or shredded newspaper. A good mix isn't too wet or dry, and can get some air, doesn't smell bad, and will eventually create 'humus', which is a moist brown material that looks and smells like good soil.

Two main ways of composting are using compost bins and using worm bins.

Compost bins are big outdoor bins that will take lots of materials. If you only put yard waste in it, you don't need much covering but if you add food scraps you need to make sure animals can't get in it. Because you don't want to attract animals, don't put meat, bones, and oily, fatty stuff (cheese, dairy, etc) in urban composts.

Check your compost now and then. It shouldn't smell, it should be moist (like a wrung out sponge), and it should have plenty of life in it. You may see earthworms and all sorts of bugs in your bin (don't be surprised to see pillbugs, sowbugs, springtails, or millipedes scampering around), but there is lots of microscopic life in there as well that's busy breaking things down. All this vibrant life is good! They do the actual work of creating finished compost.

Your compost is done when there aren't many bits of things and it just looks like a rich earthy dirt. If there are still bits of stuff in it (eggshells, sticks, corncobs, avocado skins, etc), you can sift it with a screen and get very fine humus.

Composts can be 'cold' or 'hot'. A cold compost takes a long time (as much as two years), requires little work (just a layer of 'greens' and a layer of 'browns'), and little or no turning. A hot compost can be done in months, maybe even weeks, depending on how much work you are willing to do (constant turning, cutting scraps up before composting, paying a lot of attention to the carbon:nitrogen ratio and the moisture level, etc.) A hot compost can get very hot—you can get temperatures of up to 150 degrees in the center, hot enough to burn your hand.

Big 'industrial' composts run very hot and can breakdown meat and bones, as well as 'compostable' plasticware and chip bags, that will not compost in your backyard compost bin.

Worm bins (also known as vermicomposting) are small, shallow bins that you can keep in your house. The worms in these bins are usually red wigglers, which are different from earthworms. (Don't dump these worms in the soil when you are done—red wigglers are actually an invasive species.) Make sure that the bin has holes (and cover with screen to keep out flies). Fill with shredded newspaper, moisten and fluff. Add worms. Feed them food scraps (vegetable and fruit scraps—no meat or dairy—and they also don't like onions, garlic, peppers, citrus fruits, avocado or eggplant skins, spicy foods, or anything fermented or moldy). These worms like a temperature between 40 and 80 degrees and their 'bedding' should be kept slightly damp. When everything looks like compost, harvest the 'worm castings', put in fresh newspaper strips and food scraps and start over.

You can put your finished compost on top of the soil around your plants and let the nutrients wash down, or you can mix it with regular soil before you plant. Either way your plants will thrive on the rich soil that the compost will create.

Happy composting!

Quote of the Day: "I hesitate to use 'home vermiculture system' exclusively because the term itself might frighten away some who would feel more comfortable with 'worm bin'. It sounds a lot less intimidating to just build a wooden box with holes in the bottom, add moistened bedding and worms, bury garbage, harvest worms, and set up bedding as necessary." - Mary Appelhof