Publications / Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture

Flapping Butterfly Wings: A Retrospect of TRANET’s First Twenty Years

Introduction by Kirkpatrick Sale

The beauty of this fall day in this charming village prompts me to suggest to all of you that we say a prayer of thanks—to the Earth, to the goddess Gaia, who has provided it all for us. I am not unmindful, of course, of the fact that we are here in a church, a Congregational church, a building dedicated to quite another and different God, and one not much enamored of the Greek goddesses and pagan deities who celebrate nature. But I am trusting that we are safe, for a few minutes, in sending a prayer of thanks for this glorious day to the holy, precious Earth herself.

All of which reminds me of that story about Sinclair Lewis who, once in the 1920s, decided he would disprove the existence of God, and he said at one of his lectures, If there is a God, I challenge him to declare me dead on the spot at this moment. Nothing happened. To which The Chicago Tribune the next day responded, “The interest of Mr. Lewis in God is a great deal more than that of God’s interest in Mr. Lewis.” So I have no fear that we are about to be stricken if we say a small prayer to the goddess Earth, who has provided us with this occasion.

Continuing in somewhat the same vein, the text for this afternoon’s sermon is taken from the gospel according to St. Fritz. It is his book, Small Is Beautiful, and he speaks here, as elsewhere, on the issue of technology:

. . . technology, although of course the product of man, tends to develop by its own laws and principles, and these are very different from those of human nature or of living nature in general. Nature always, so to speak, knows where and when to stop. Greater even than the mystery of natural growth is the mystery of the natural cessation of growth. There is measure in all natural things–in their size, speed, or violence. As a result, the system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology, or perhaps I should say: Not so with man dominated by technology and specialization. Technology recognizes no self-limiting principle–in terms , for instance, of size, speed, or violence. It therefore does not possess the virtues of being self-balancing, self-adjusting, and self-cleansing. In the subtle system of nature, technology and in particular the super-technology of the modern world, acts like a foreign body. And there are now numerous signs of rejection. . . . First, human nature revolts against inhuman technological, organizational, and political patterns, which it experiences as suffocating and debilitating; second, the living environment which supports human life aches and groans and gives signs of partial breakdown; and, third, it is clear to anyone fully knowledgeable in the subject matter that the inroads being made into the world’s non-renewable resources, particularly those of fossil fuels, are such that serious bottlenecks and virtual exhaustion loom ahead in the quite foreseeable future.

So sayeth St. Fritz.

The idea of an alternative to this modern megatechnology was important in Fritz’s life, and he called it appropriate technology, intermediate technology, democratic technology, people’s technology, or—the title of the chapter from which I just read—technology with a human face. Well, this is a crucial issue of our age, the question of the technology that we should be living with, and for the past twenty years Bill Ellis has been the guiding spirit of those who would champion an alternative technology. As you know, he is the man who for years has put out TRANET, which stands for “transnational network about alternative technology,” and it is appropriate that for most of this time it came out of the little town of Rangeley, Maine, where Bill spent the first twenty years of his life and has spent the past twenty. In between he had a rather peripatetic career from Scotland to Hawaii as a science adviser on the state, national, and international levels. He is a trained physicist, a man of science, and hence he is trained in assessing and judging the technology he is advocating.

It is an honor for us today to have this man address us, and I want us not merely to welcome him but to honor him as the grand old man who has been in charge of our fondest dreams for the past twenty years: Bill Ellis.

When Bob Swann [president], Susan Witt [executive director], and John McClaughry [chairman of the board] of the Schumacher Center suggested that I give a retrospect of TRANET for an E. F. Schumacher lecture, I hesitated before accepting, for my strength is not in looking at the past but in envisioning the future.

My task throughout my life has been to search for the butterfly wings, as I call them, of science and technology. At the National Science Foundation my job was to find what was happening in science that would have an impact on the society of the future. At the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) I did the same thing. My job there was to look for technologies being developed or invented that could have an impact on what the Third World might become.

The metaphor of the flapping butterfly wing, you may know, comes from chaos theory. The idea is that no matter how good a mathematical model you have for projecting the future of any complex system, the initial conditions of that system make it impossible to project very far into the future. The flap of a butterfly wing in Brazil may be responsible for a hurricane a year later in New England. Unless you can measure those initial conditions, you can’t project the future. But most futurists look back at the trends of the past and say, “If we follow those trends in the future, then this is where we’ll end.” They don’t take into account the effect of flapping butterfly wings on our world.

The best example I know of this is Bob Swann. Twenty years ago, before the Schumacher Center for a New Economics was organized, I remember meeting Bob in a restaurant in Boston, and he was talking about community land trusts, a concept I had never heard of. At that time there was no such thing around, yet there was Bob trying to arouse people’s interest. The only one I could find was a second-story office up in Brunswick, Maine, where a group was trying to set one up at Bob’s suggestion. Now everywhere you look, there is a community land trust, and that is the result of the flapping butterfly wing of Bob talking to anyone who would listen. More recently, of course, Bob and Susan have been involved with Self-Help for a Regional Economy (SHARE), a micro-lending arrangement, and with local scrip or local money of different kinds, such as the Deli Dollar, which I’m sure those of you from this area have heard of. These ideas have proliferated: there is also the local exchange and trading system (LETS), which started in Canada; in England there are hundreds of LETS systems being set up. Local scrip like Ithaca Hours has also been proliferating. There are all kinds of economic systems that are being driven by local grass-roots economies, and if they continue to proliferate, they may one day replace the global economy.

The Origin of TRANET

I carried over to TRANET the search for seminal ideas and actions that was my career. TRANET in no small part owes its existence to the book you have just heard quoted, Small Is Beautiful, by E. F. Schumacher. When I was working for UNESCO, I helped to develop programs that would make science and technology relevant to Third World projects. It was then that I first encountered the concept of appropriate technology.

I met Fritz Schumacher in London in the 1960s at a meeting on Third World technologies. Much later, in the mid-1970s, the planning committee for the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver—whose members included Buckminster Fuller, Margaret Mead, Barbara Ward, and other progressive thinkers—wanted to include a nongovernmental segment on appropriate technology on the agenda. They asked Fritz to recommend someone knowledgeable about developments in that area. It’s probably because of our chance meeting that he mentioned my name. I was invited to set up a program and an exhibit on appropriate technologies at Habitat I, as it’s called now, because later there was another conference called Habitat II.

The conference ran for two weeks, with workshops every day. We would start in the morning around nine o’clock and go until after midnight. It was an intense experience of following through on what Fritz Schumacher had been writing about in Small Is Beautiful. From the very beginning it became obvious that appropriate technology included much more than just the low-cost hardware people were developing. As well as being concerned with pumps and ploughs and water wheels and solar collectors, the participants were also concerned with software: educational systems, economic systems, health systems, transportation systems. I already had a long list of the topics I thought we ought to talk about, but every day someone would come up to me and say, for instance: “I’m a doctor. You’ve forgotten health. There’s an appropriate health system that is very different from the current system.” Then we would add that to the list.

The Washington Post caught the feeling of that meeting pretty well: “There was lots of hair, lots of blue jeans, and lots of protest. Yes, but there was a great deal more than that. The official delegates downtown with their army-chauffeured cars had their briefcases full of documents prepared for their foreign ministers, but the citizen representatives in blue jeans had the expertise. They made some sparks that illuminated a few important matters, the most important being that people aren’t the problem, people are the solution.” And that became the motto for what TRANET was all about. People are not the problem, they are the solution. Over our door at TRANET we had a bumper sticker from the 1960s saying, “If the people lead, the leaders will follow.”

Third World interest in appropriate technology dovetailed very well with what was going on in this country. There were people here who, independently of reading Schumacher or before he came on the scene, had started developing appropriate technologies, although they didn’t use that term. Sim van der Ryn started Farallones Institute out in California; John and Nancy Todd started New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod; Amory Lovins was writing then from England about energy and technologies; Bob Swann, Malcolm Lilywhite, Pliny Fisk, Hazel Henderson, David Morris, Ivan Illich were all writing about the fact that—to use the words of John D. Rockefeller III in The Second American Revolution—technology has become our master rather than our servant. And they saw appropriate technology not just as a way to solve the problems of the Third World but also to reform society.

At the beginning of the workshops in Vancouver, participants had discussed the idea of setting up an international mechanism for appropriate technology: IMAT. I don’t know how many meetings I went to—they were held every other week, it seems to me—in Vienna and Paris and London to talk about establishing such an international mechanism. But people in the workshops who had come from the Third World and from the grassroots and who were developing their own technologies rejected soundly the idea of a UN organization telling them how to develop what they needed at the local level. They feared that a centralized bureaucracy would override citizen participation, and they said: “All we want is to stay in touch with one another. We want to have some kind of informal mechanism that we can drop into or drop out of as we wish. What can we do to bring this about?”

After much discussion we finally decided to start a transnational network that would publish a quarterly newsletter to which people could send reports about local developments in technology, about projects, programs, books, periodicals. Anything in the field of local development, of people doing for themselves, was appropriate. George McRobie, the co-founder with Schumacher of the Intermediate Technology Development Group in London, who was at the meeting, said, “Bill, you brought together all these people, who have come from Papua, New Guinea, India, Australia, Switzerland, Bangladesh, etc. Why don’t you be the facilitator and put this together?” So I agreed that if people would send me their information, I would abstract it in a newsletter-directory, just saying so-and-so had built a windmill with such-and-such characteristics. I would include the name and address and contact information so that anyone could get in touch directly with the person who developed the technology for details and assistance. People could send information to one another, but I would be out of the loop. I said that once the newsletter came out, my involvement would be over.

TRANET Over the Years

TRANET began in Washington, D. C., where my wife and I were living at the time, but after a couple of years we agreed that there was no good reason why it had to come out of Washington, which is an expensive place to be. I had inherited the home where I was born in Rangeley, Maine. It had a woodlot for heat, a great big garden, and maple trees from which we could make maple syrup and maple sugar. We decided to move up there and try to live a frugal life with our own appropriate technologies. We added a greenhouse to one side of the house so that we could have greens all winter long. It’s fun in the middle of the winter, when it’s snowing and thirty degrees below zero outside, to go out and pick our own lettuce and broccoli and whatever else happens to grow through the winter.

At the same time I was fortunate to have a connection to a number of agencies such as UNESCO, UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization) and to new science and technology groups. This meant I was able to keep in touch with developments in appropriate technology, with progressive thinkers both in this country and the Third World. TRANET would become our intellectual life, supplemented by a few United Nations and other consultant contracts, which took us to remote Third World villages. We visited appropriate technology centers in forty-some countries, and we saw people at the grass roots solving their own problems. It’s not being done by government or by industry; it’s being done by the people themselves.

In twenty years of publishing the newsletter-directory TRANET I’ve run into a number of these successful endeavors before they became well known. I remember in 1978 on a trip to Bangladesh I learned about the Grameen bank. Groups of very poor people who have no collateral and no credit get together and guarantee one another’s loans. The bank makes a loan to one of them, and it’s guaranteed by that person’s peers, who are friends or family. Now this method has been widely replicated. In my area of Maine we have set up something similar, called peer lending, which works for poor people in Franklin County. A little later in 1982 we found a group of local citizens in Switzerland who had bought a large piece of land, an old farm with vegetable gardens, and hired a gardener to take care of them. They participated a little bit with their work, but it was primarily up to the gardener to grow the food. This of course was Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which is proliferating in this country. In fact, the first CSA farm in North America is located in nearby South Egremont, Massachusetts.

In 1986 we were making a tour of alternative centers in Japan, and there we learned about the Seikatsu Club, made up of 100,000 housewives divided into groups of five, who get together and through the club purchase all the food and household items they need. Their group is large enough that they now have some control over agriculture around Tokyo. One day we were high up on a hillside in a peach orchard, and a group of housewives in their kimonos came walking up to talk to the farmer. They wanted to look at the peaches because they were buying them for the Seikatsu Club.

Another time we were in an organic garden in Tokyo. It’s been in the owner’s family for generations. He has sold off enough of the land around it to become a multimillionaire, but he still has acres and acres of land right in the middle of Tokyo. He was having a meeting with a lot of organic farmers, and the housewives were there too. Our translator told us the women were letting the farmers know what they wanted, such as more greens on a certain celebration day when they don’t eat meat. The women were sitting around, about as many as there are people here in this room, with five or six farmers standing up front, and they were having a discussion about what would be in the Seikatsu Club stores in the coming year.

When the club members don’t like the products they are getting, they do something about it. They say, for instance, “We want to have a soap without phosphates, and we will set up our own manufacturing because we can’t buy it on the market.” So it has become a powerful system, and it’s now being mimicked in other countries around the world.

It was innovations such as these, empowering people at the grass roots and promoting community self-reliance, that we reported continually in TRANET, usually before they hit the mainstream press, if they ever did.

But the individual appropriate technologies being developed are a small part of what is happening. More important is that these local groups are proliferating rapidly. When we first started our work, whenever I would go to a gathering—a UN conference or a local meeting on appropriate technology—I would see the same old faces: Kirkpatrick Sale was there, John Todd was there, Hazel Henderson was there, a few dedicated people who would get together and talk about appropriate technology and local development. But in the past few years this movement has grown tremendously as a result of the failed policies and near chaos brought on by the industrial countries’ intrusion into cultures they dominate but do not understand. Citizen-based grass-roots organizations—GROs, as they are called—now number in the hundreds of thousands. Julie Fisher has written two books, The Road from Rio: Sustainable Development and the Nongovernmental Movement in the Third World andNongovernments: NGOs and the Political Development of the Third World, in which she describes the growth of these organizations.

The Dominator Paradigm and the Gaian Paradigm

I’ll return to the growth of GROs in a minute, but first I would like to talk a little bit about the development of a new paradigm. The old paradigm on which our society was built is what Riane Eisler in her book The Chalice and the Blade calls the dominator paradigm, according to which all life is part of a chain of being. At the very top is man—and I mean man, not woman. Above man there may be some celestial beings and a God. People will argue about this, but it’s really not relevant to the way we’ve designed our society. Under man comes woman, under woman come children, under children come animals, under animals come plants, and under plants comes the Earth, the inorganic Earth. Each rung is dominant over the one below it. That is the story Riane Eisler tells about the way our society was designed in terms of a dominator paradigm, whose major values are self-interest, competition, survival of the fittest, hierarchy, authority—all of these the means by which domination takes place. When we went out in earlier centuries to colonize, we dominated. Every old culture was wiped out by this dominator paradigm, which was the basis for the Western view of life.

In addition to providing information on appropriate technologies, one of TRANET’s most important tasks has been to transmit a sense of the new paradigm I call the Gaian paradigm, which we see emerging. In The Networking Book Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps quote an essay in the fall 1979 issue of TRANET that said, “People in all parts of the world are recognizing that big business, big government, big technology, and other centralized organizations cannot alone solve local problems or develop local potentials, only the people themselves can. And people in all parts of the world are recognizing not only that small is beautiful but also that small is possible and small is happening.”

People-to-people networks are initiating a more creative approach to world being. They are forming a second level of world governance. Lipnack and Stamps describe TRANET in these words: “TRANET is a whole: there are a name, an office in Rangeley, Maine, a staff, some files, and a vast collective memory bank of personal experience in its chosen field, appropriate technology (AT). Organizationally, TRANET resembles many of its member groups. Within the network, TRANET’s role is not control but facilitation. Whereas a bureaucracy invariably has a controlling organ that serves as a decision-maker, TRANET and other network hubs function to facilitate cooperative decision making.” And that of course was what the people attending the Habitat conference were concerned about. They didn’t want somebody to make decisions for them; they wanted to make the decisions themselves at the local level.

Chaos, Complexity, and Gaia

There are many basic scientific observations leading to a new scientific social paradigm, the Gaian paradigm. One of these is that biological evolution does not occur in small steps as Darwin suggested. Biologists now looking at the records of fossils have decided that there is a long period of stability; then suddenly a series of changes will occur, and a new species will come into being very quickly. Stephen Jay Gould has called this “punctuated equilibrium.”

Two additional observations were linked to become the Gaia Hypothesis. Atmospheric chemist James Lovelock noted that the atmosphere of the earth is different from the atmosphere of all the other planets. The earth’s atmosphere stays amazingly constant within ranges that support life. If the level of oxygen were to go up or down by 1 or 2 percent, life would not be possible; if the amount of salinity in the ocean were changed by any amount, life would not be possible. In spite of the fact that the solar energy reaching the earth has changed tremendously over the span of life on earth, the temperature of the earth has varied by only a few degrees. There is something about the earth’s atmosphere that keeps the biome livable.

At the same time that James Lovelock was making his observations, microbiologist Lynn Margulis was studying the evolution of micro-organisms over the billions of years before any complex life formed, and she found that life forms support one another. Life is able to exist because of a symbiosis among all life forms; everything is interdependent. Together, Lovelock and Margulis came up with the Gaian Hypothesis (named after the Greek earth goddess), which suggests that the Earth acts like a living organism. It self-organizes and maintains life as an ecological system.

The theoretical understanding of how Gaia might self-organize came from a number of other sciences: physics, mathematics, and particularly computer modeling. It turns out that the mathematics we use in physics is great for projecting the future of a two-body system. If I know the earth has gravitation and I know the speed of a bullet, I can tell you where the bullet will be a hundred years from now. But that doesn’t work when you get above a two-body problem or have a complex system. A mathematics of algebra and calculus is not adequate to solve the three-body problem or complex systems problems, but computer modeling is. There are two particular ideas that have come out of computer modeling that are very critical to social organization: self-organizing criticality and autocatalysis both show how biological entities self-organize in quantum leaps from simple cells to linked complex networks of cells, organs, plants, and animals.

Self-organizing criticality was proposed by physicist Per Bak, who started looking at how uneven and sudden pulses come about. His first model was simply a cone of sand. If you take sand and pour it onto one spot, little by little the pile builds up till you get a stable inverted cone. If you keep pouring sand, what happens? All of a sudden it becomes unstable until landslides and avalanches allow for a new stable cone that is larger, and it will keep on going like this until you can get a cone as high as the Pyramids. The sand is evincing punctuated equilibrium. Bak showed that biological evolution occurred in such bursts. He found a mathematical model for this and suggested that it applies just as well to living forms as it does to sand forms.

Stuart Kauffman at the Santa Fe Institute developed the concept of autocatalysis, which holds that systems of biological entities may promote their own rapid transition into different forms. He uses the example of a fly with slippery feet. The mutation of slippery-footedness gives no environmental advantage to the fly until the mutation of the sticky-tongued frog occurs. Only then does Darwin’s survival of the fittest come into play. Although the sticky-tongued frog is able to catch and keep more flies, the slippery-footed fly is able to escape from the frog, and so we have a major change of life form. A whole network of mutations can build up in a biological system. Different animals will have different mutations that lie dormant until suddenly there’s a change of some kind, perhaps in the weather, and a new animal comes into being. Autocatalysis linked with survival of the fittest explains how new species or complex organs like the eye emerge. The eye is made up of many changes that all had to happen at the same time in order for it to work.

Some of the people working at the Santa Fe Institute were physicists. Lee Smolin and Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize physicist, recognized that self-organization not only applies to life forms but extends all the way back to the beginning of the cosmos. They suggest that the same principle may apply to the self-organizing of fundamental particles into atoms, atoms into molecules, and molecules into galaxies, solar systems, planets, and life.

At the same time, economists Brian Arthur, Jon Holland, and Kenneth Arrow, another Nobel Prize winner, have extended the new paradigm in the other direction to the development of society, including economics, social organization, and human consciousness. Society obeys these same laws of nature and will thus start developing and then suddenly change into something else. This idea of things happening suddenly in society is developed by Elisabet Sahtouris in a book called Earth Dance: Living Systems in Evolution, in which she says that society works just like the human body. Cells develop, and when enough of them have come together, they suddenly start networking with one another. As the network grows, special organs will grow out of the network to serve the whole. The natural laws of self-organizing criticality and autocatalysis also work on the social level.

Global Civil Society Governance

If we go back now to the growth of grass-roots organizations, we’ll find that these hundreds of thousands of organizations around the world are the equivalent of these cells, and they are beginning to network with one another. As they network, new ones start forming. In her book Nongovernments Julie Fisher talks about grass-roots support organizations or GRSOs. In the early stages grass-roots organizations had no other organizations to support them, but once they were networking on a large enough scale, suddenly support organizations appeared. Another type of group that has emerged on the global level is the International Nongovernment Organization or INGO. This whole network is becoming a powerful and well organized system.

In this country we refer to “civil society,” which is made up of the same kind of organizations—citizens at the local level beginning to set up their own money systems, local trade systems, citizen patrols, and so forth, with the result that civil society self-organizes into a strong and effective system. If we project a little bit, we can imagine that this might become the kind of world governance that will take the place of the failing nation-state systems. Senator Bradley has talked about civil society as “the third level of governance,” growing to be more powerful than either the market, which is one form of governance, or failing governments, exemplified by what’s happening in Washington today. The first and second levels are not solving world problems; problems are being solved at the local level by civil society.

The Transition to Learning

This is true not only in governance but in other areas as well. In TRANET we have had seventeen different headings for the new ideas we were following. One of them fits exactly with Deborah Meier’s [the preceding speaker’s] description of home education. Home schooling started in the mid-1970s when Paul Goodman was urging schools to make use of community facilities, when Ivan Illich wrote his seminal book Deschooling Society, and when John Holt wrote Instead of Education and Growing Without Schooling about how children learn. Long before this, of course, people like John Dewey–who started writing about education in 1906 (The Child and the Curriculum) and who emphasized learning by doing–had been talking about the system as being out of control and failing children.

In 1980 some 10,000 children were receiving home schooling; by 1990 the number had grown to 300,000; today there are 1.5 million. Now, that’s an astonishing growth rate for children whose parents have taken them out of the school system and who are being schooled at home. This rapid increase has been taking place in the background, essentially unrecognized until two weeks ago when Newsweek had a cover article on home schooling. The article makes clear that it is a phenomenon to be reckoned with in terms of its impact on our learning system.

As home-schooling associations have grown in number, they are beginning to network with one another and provide services. A couple of them took on the task of making home schooling legal in the states where it was illegal in the 1970s. Now it is legal in all fifty states. Other groups provide newsletters, publications, curricula, tests, and diplomas for those who graduate so that they can prove they finished school. In the same way that the human body evolved, these cells have come together and network organs are growing to make a body that can be conceived of as a major part of the learning system in this country.

Civil Society and Learning

There is another way in which these learning systems are becoming important. The transition from “educating” to “learning” is being recognized by a wide variety of scholars. In Post-Capitalist Society management guru Peter Drucker talks about the need for a learning society. Learning should not be something you do for twelve years and then you graduate, whereupon the doors close and you no longer have the facilities for learning. You’ve had the school library, you’ve had the school gymnasium, you’ve had the teachers, and all of a sudden you’re thrown out into the cold. Drucker says that kind of school isn’t going to serve the future. What we need is a “learning society” in which we have life-long access to learning at any level. We should be able to choose any field we want to study and continue learning on our own.

From the other end of the spectrum, peace scholar Elise Boulding has held many “Imagine a World without Weapons” workshops for people of all ages and from all walks of life. Again and again, she says, she finds people expressing the belief that society has to change in the direction of becoming a learning and localist society in which communities are self-reliant and “learning appears integrated into other community activities . . . everyone is a learner, and education is life long.” The idea of a learning community is consonant with that of civil society and the emerging Gaian paradigm.

Cooperative Community Life-Long Learning Centers

In recent issues of TRANET we have noted the emergence of another social innovation that could be the butterfly wing to set off a major transition for our education system. In the past few years local home-schooling networks have started a new form of social institution. Because I have not yet heard a name for it, I’ll call it the “cooperative community life-long learning center.”

These centers are cooperatively owned and controlled by the member families they serve. Families have gotten together and decided they needed some help with home schooling. They need a center where there will be a mentor, someone they can go and talk to, not about what this child or that child needs but rather about how to do a good job of educating their children. And not only educating their children but educating themselves. In addition to mentors, the community centers provide counseling, workshops and classes, supplies, facilities, and equipment: they have computers, they have lots of software, they have books–they will find books for you–they have microscopes and telescopes, they provide access to labs that you can use. Most importantly, they take advantage of all community possibilities for learning: libraries, YMCAs, churches, museums, local businesses, farms, government offices, the streets, and parks.

An example of how a mentor might proceed is that if you or your child or anyone else in the family comes in to the center and says, “I want to become a dentist, but I don’t know where to begin,” the mentor might say, “All right, let’s talk to a dentist.” And so a dentist is brought in. The system not only provides mentoring and guidance but also finds the places where you can go for the best education in whatever area you choose—or the best learning, I should say. We use the word “learning” because “educating” conveys the idea that there is an outside organization trying to pump something into you, whereas learning is something you do for yourself. The point of home schooling is that you try to get children to want to learn. You don’t try to teach them at home, you try to provide them with the facilities.


This brief examination of the potential self-organization of society only hints at the holistic and comprehensive cultural transition that has begun. My speculations are not meant to be accurate predictions of the future. A central theme of chaos and complexity theories is that self-organization cannot be wholly guided by human intervention; the best we can do is to examine possible options and pave the way for any of them to happen.

The belief that the Earth is a living being is, of course, nothing new. As the TRANET brochure sent to potential members for over ten years stated:

Throughout indigenous cultures deep Earth wisdom links humans to one another and to the Earth. The aborigines in Australia consider themselves the ‘ownees’ of the land, for the land owns them; it is inseparable from the winds that blow over it, the other animals and plants that inhabit it, and the souls of the ancestors that pervade it. In Tahiti, before the intrusions of the white man there was no concept of ownership; anything natural to the island or created by its people was for the benefit of anyone in need. When Columbus first landed in the New World, he could not understand the economic system of “gifting” on which the country depended. People did not “exchange” goods and services, rather everything was given without accounting. Everyone worked to produce goods to give to others. The more one gave away, the greater was that person’s respect and prestige, and the greater was the safety and well-being of her or his family. Chief Seattle in his apocryphal letter to the President expressed this concept in saying, ‘We do not own the land, the land owns us.’ Our emerging Gaian cultures have much to learn from the wisdom and practices of the past. TRANET is a transnational network of organizations and individuals creating the new social paradigm.

This expression of the Gaian paradigm was as good as any mission statement TRANET could have come up with.

The examples I have given here are only an indication of the kind of analysis that can be done within the new Gaian paradigm. Each of the seventeen areas covered by TRANET has suggested a different social system that could be radically transformed. To mention a few:

  • The judicial system is being re-invented by many groups like the Association of Holistic Lawyers and by concepts like “restorative justice.”
  • Transportation could be transformed by the myriad new technologies including bicycle paths, solar-powered vehicles, and groups like the Movement for a Paving Moratorium.
  • Habitat is certainly being renewed by co-housing, ecovillages, intentional communities, and other social innovations that emphasize the value of community.
  • Food and agriculture could become more humanely relevant with the proliferation and linking of food co-ops, CSAs, organic gardening, and farmers’ markets.
  • Macroeconomics is under attack and is being transformed by LETS, local scrip, time dollars, and many organizations such as Corporate Watch, the Other Economic Summit (TOES), the Association for Bio-Economics, and the Schumacher Center for a New Economics.
  • Health care is also being transformed by acupuncture, herbal medicine, and the concepts and techniques of holistic health, which are rapidly becoming accepted.
  • Alternative energy, of course, was given widespread attention with the OPEC oil cut-off in 1973 and the burst of solar, microhydro-, and wind-power technologies. Predictions of the end of the oil era in the next 50 to 150 years have brought new attention to alternative sources of energy as well as to energy conservation technologies such as electric cars, insulation, and low-energy refrigerators. These have moved from backyard technologies and alternative publications like TRANET to the province of big business and the mainstream press.

For twenty years TRANET has followed these and other areas including feminism, human rights, peace, governance, and development. As well as helping people at the grass roots link up with the developers of these appropriate technologies and social innovations, our goal has been to help them link up with one another in order to integrate the many grass-roots ideas and actions into a single cultural transformation.

The emerging Gaian paradigm radically changes the way we will look at all aspects of our culture in the millennium ahead. In the coming decades Earth citizens may well look back at the society in which we now live as not only having been not that far removed from our cave-dwelling ancestors but also as the most dangerous period in human history.

In this lecture I have tried to show how TRANET, along with others, has worked to integrate the many grass-roots citizens’ ideas and actions into a united whole that could bring a very different future from the one we’re presently headed toward. What will happen depends on us. It’s not something we can really plan, but we can go home and start setting up the local cells, the local money systems, the local services of all kinds that will be in place no matter what happens to the globalized system.

Right now everybody is talking about Y2K (the year 2000) and what’s going to happen when the year turns to 1/1/00. Computers may read 00 as 1900 instead of 2000. Something along this line happened when Marks and Spencer in London bought tons of food and put it all in one of their storehouses. Their computer read that the shelf life would expire in 1/1/05. So the trucks went in, picked up the food, and threw it all away. That’s a different problem, but we could all be running into this kind of thing because our environmental system, our electrical system, our food system, our billing system all depend on computers. What gets delivered depends on what the computer says. The ATM, for example, works on computers. You may suddenly find that on 1/1/00 you have no money in the bank because the year is being read as 1900. People are becoming very concerned about the Y2K problem, and everybody is saying we must be prepared.

My response has been that Y2K may be a problem, but there are many, many kinds of problems we’re all going to be faced with in the future. The global system in which a trillion dollars a day is traded is completely out of control. If it breaks down for any reason, such as global warming or the end of oil or the failure of the stock market, we’re going to be left hanging high and dry because everything we buy from the stores is in that global system.

The only way we can protect ourselves is to start looking at what we can do locally in terms of the economic system, and we’ll find that cells are developing, that “we the people” can create a local system. We know the government isn’t going to do it for us, and certainly the corporations won’t; they want this global system in which they can take their money to Bangladesh and hire children in bare feet to make hundred-dollar sneakers for the U. S. market. The shift has to be made—and is being made—by people at the grass roots.

People are not the problem; they are the solution.
If the people lead, the leaders will follow.

Excerpts from the Question & Answer Period

(Questions were inaudible; only the answers follow.)

 I try not to use the designation nongovernmental organization. We put on a meeting at the UN Conference on Science and Technology back in the 1980s. To a lot of people nongovernmental meant the corporations, and there were indeed multinational corporations there that wanted to take over and coopt our NGO meeting. Julie Fisher is absolutely right when she says, “Don’t say NGO; say GRO for grass-roots organization; say PDO for people’s development organization or CSO for civil society organization. The other thing about the NGOs is that those associated with the United Nations are essentially part of it. At the Conference on Science and Technology we found that the official NGOs waited for the governments to come to them and tell them what to support. There was very little original thinking in that particular group of NGOs. It’s getting better, I think. When I started at the United Nations, they said, “Oh, TRANET has to be an NGO,” and I did go to a number of NGO meetings, but I said, “If you’re just going to do what the UN tells you to do or what your governments tell you to do, you’re not doing what we’re talking about. We’re talking about people at the grass roots doing it on their own. We just have to get out and start doing it.”


Actually, most home schoolers do more socializing than they would in school. When you’re in school, as Deborah Meier was pointing out, you’re stuck with what goes on in the classroom. You just sit there, as I did when I was growing up. We had teachers who sat up front and controlled you most of the time you were there. You had just a few minutes at recess, a few minutes in the corridors. Home schoolers are in the community, working and learning with real people.


The TRANET network reaches all around the world. I had a very interesting experience once when I was running a project in Nepal. I hiked way up into the mountains, and there I met a Catholic priest, Father Sabol. Because I was working for the UN, I didn’t say what else I did. Father Sabol was telling me all the things that he had introduced into Nepal. There was a thresher he had found somewhere or other. It was a foot thresher you had to pedal, and he brought that in to replace the flails they had been using. He brought in strawberries, and he was growing strawberries and bananas in the same field. I asked him how he knew about these things, thinking I was going to learn something, and he said, “Well, I take a little newsletter called TRANET.” That I consider one of my greatest successes, just the fact that people like him were learning what was going on and doing something with it.


I don’t want to attack globalization per se because globalization is going to happen. The danger is that it is going to happen only to corporations. They are going to take over, and as you well know, the Multilateral Agreement on Investments is their next big step. Right now it’s been stopped, in large part by a network of people on the internet. If MAI were adopted, then a corporation could go any place any time and set itself up without any control at the local level whatsoever. There would be no point to people saying, “We don’t want pollution” or to farmers saying, “We don’t want to use the bovine growth hormone on our farms.” They would have no control over it; it would all be decided by the corporation.

The danger does not lie in globalization as such. Just think of what’s happening with the nongovernmental organizations, the GROs, as a form of globalization. A global government is really being formed by these grass-roots groups. We’ve got to build up the networking among them so that they become a louder voice to counterbalance what corporations are doing. Governments are not going to do it; governments automatically compete with one another. Once a government comes into power, it stays in power only if it wins more power over other governments. So the nation-state governmental system is not going to become local because it is very parochial. Patriotism is very parochial. But the civil society can become local, and I suggest that will provide a counterbalance to the globalization of the economy.


I think it’s not completely true that the people who are experts are not the people who are interested in local development. There are people like Herman Daly in economics or Richard Douthwaite, there are people in the credit unions, for instance, people in the cooperative movement, who are also experts. I think it’s a matter of locating the experts who know something about local economics.


The next step for all of us is to go back and start setting up some of these local organizations. If we all had a local Grameen Bank, a local LETS group, a CSA, a farmers market, a food co-op, or the like, then that would be part of the learning system. If it isn’t there, we can’t use it. All we can use is what’s in our communities to learn from. And if all we’ve got is the banks—you put your money in the bank, and it appears in nanoseconds in Saudi Arabia for developing a military weapons system—that isn’t going to work. One of the things I’ve been promoting is for all of us to start tithing ourselves and putting at least 10 percent of what we have saved into a loan fund whose purpose is community ownership.


Michael Shuman has written a book called Going Local in which he talks about community-owned corporations. Usually we think of corporations as being bad, but if the community owns them, and if they’re set up in order to solve a community problem, that is the kind of thing we can work with. My home town provides a number of good examples in this regard. TRANET owns a local movie theater. There wasn’t one within fifty miles of our town, so a group of citizens got together and said, Let’s build a movie theater. They raised the money, but they needed a nonprofit corporation to be the front, so TRANET took over, and we now own the movie theater, which is a $250,000 enterprise. It’s a nonprofit theater, with any profits going to children’s programs.


Another thing we did I more or less started myself because back in 1982 the Apple Computer Company gave me an Apple 2E computer with a few of those five and a half inch disks and linked me up with the Farallones Institute in California, Volunteers in Asia at Stanford University, and the ecology department at the University of California, Davis. There were the four of us. Apple told us to learn how to network. Nobody had really done any computer networking that we could build on, so we started using the modems they gave us–600 BOD modems, which meant it took you all day to write your name and get it transferred to any of these groups–and we started networking. We started something called Eco-Net, meaning ecology network, which has now grown into 10,000 groups. By now we all have computers with which we can communicate at a reasonable speed. So you see that this kind of thing can be done at the local level, and if we start a community learning center, certainly we will bring in students of all ages to show them that these things can be done. We’ve also got a health center that was created by citizens. We’ve got a big community land trust that owns thousands of acres of woodlands. Every community has the resources; it’s just a matter of using them.

Remarks from the speakers’ panel with Deborah Meier and Frank Bryan following the lectures

I think I should conclude by pointing out that everything I’ve said is speculation on my part. I cannot really predict the future, but I can speculate, and I speculate in a very positive fashion because my twenty years of publishing TRANET has introduced me to so many good things that are happening around the world, and I’m spoiled as a result. I read about what is being done and what is working; I don’t read even a local paper, and when I see television, I often turn it off because I don’t want to see someone bashing someone else.

I believe we have to think very positively but at the same time very radically. I see it as a problem with most people that they are stuck in the past. When we talk, for instance, about schools, because we come out of a school mentality, all having gone to school, we say, “Well, school is it, I’ve got to change the concept of school.” The same in economics. If we start talking about changing economics, we say, “Economics means government and taxes, and so we’ve got to change the way we tax people.” I think some of us have got to start thinking radically; we’ve got to say, “Let’s wash the slate clean.”

When we talk about politics, we say, “We’ve got to talk about parties and getting elected.” I’ve been arguing with the Green Party for years, saying, “Stop trying to get elected. Start doing something, and if you do something, then you’ll get elected, but if you only want to get elected, forget about it.” Ralph Nader was recently in Maine, and he said the same thing. I was glad because I can send his speech to all my Green friends who have been saying, “We’ve got to get elected first, and then we’ll start changing the world.” I say, “No, go out and set up a community land trust; go out and start a local currency, and if you do that as Greens, people are going to recognize that you’re not the usual politicians. You’re something new.”

I see things in a positive light, but I don’t want to leave you with the idea that I am a Pollyanna speculating on things that may never happen. I want to speculate on what is possible, and I hope we all do that.


Publication By

William Ellis

William Ellis of Rangely, Maine, retired early from his career as a science policy consultant in agencies such as the National Science Foundation, Unesco, and The World Bank to work instead to promote the broad range of social innovations that empower people at the grass roots and promote community self-reliance. One of his positions was general … Continued

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