I find myself incredulous at the portentousness of events these days. We are approaching the point of peak oil. Global warming is becoming undeniable. In hurricane season terrible storms sweep up the east coast. We hear less about such storms elsewhere, but others strike Central America, for instance, and cause great devastation. In 2005, at about the same time as Katrina, there was a largely unreported and unprecedented hurricane in the south Atlantic. If ever there was a time to advocate the regionally based economics of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and the adaptive strategies of ecological design, which impinges minimally upon the environment, that time is now.
It has been said that there is healing power in the statement of the terrible truth. I think it was Jung who claimed that what is not made conscious will be played out as fate. With relation to climate change, I have collected the most succinct statements I could find, made by people who understand the science of it better than I do.
The Nation’s environmental writer, Mark Hertsgaard, reported: “Climate change is here and on track to kill millions in the twenty-first century. The victims will not die in the sudden bang of radioactive explosions but in the gradual whimper of environmental collapse as soaring temperatures and rising seas submerge cities, parch farmlands, crush ecosystems, and spread hunger, disease, and chaos worldwide.” I think that forecast is realistic.
A stark but more poetic statement was relayed by Chief Oren Lyons when he was a Schumacher speaker last year. He quoted an Inuit elder, who said: “‘We’ve lost several thousand feet of our glacier already, and it has disrupted everything . . . . [T]he great white bears are starving, and there’s nothing we can do to help them. Our hunters can’t travel on the ice any more, they’re afraid. . . [T]he seals have moved, they have followed the fish. The birds are not coming in at the right time anymore.’”
Sir David King, the chief scientific advisor to the British government, considers climate change a threat far greater than terrorism. Terrorism is of course a serious danger, but it also provides a smoke screen to conceal what we should really be addressing in terms of climate change, both worldwide and country by country.
Ronald Wright has written a book entitled A Short History of Progress, which began as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s annual Massey Lecture. It is very informative—not just doom and gloom although not that cheerful either. He writes: “Our present behavior is typical of failed societies at the zenith of their greed and arrogance. As the Mayan Empire began to fail, the response of the rulers was not to seek a new course, to cut back on royal and military expenditures, to put effort into land reclamation or to encourage birth control. No, they dug in their heels and carried on doing what they had always done, only more so. Their solution was higher pyramids, more power to the king, harder work for the masses, more foreign wars.” Sound familiar?
Moving into the more Schumacherian realm of economics, the outstanding British journalist George Monbiot has written: “The denial of climate change, while out of tune with the science, is consistent with, even necessary for, the outlook of almost all the world’s economists. Modern economics is premised on the notion that the planet has an infinite capacity to supply us with wealth and absorb our pollution. The cure to all ills is endless growth. Yet endless growth, in a finite world, is impossible. Pull this rug from under the economic theories, and the whole system of thought collapses.” It was because E. F. Schumacher encouraged the opposite form of economics that the Schumacher Center came into being, so in honoring the Center we also honor the thinking of its namesake. He was a mentor to John Todd and me and very encouraging of our kind of work as well.
I think that within the past year more and more people have become willing to acknowledge the terrible truth of what is upon us, and some reasonable discussion of it has reached the mainstream. Former Vice-President Al Gore has done wonders in this regard, and some leadership is emerging from Hollywood celebrities as well. In late spring The New Yorker ran a series about climate change by Elizabeth Kolbert. You may remember that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was also first published as a series in The New Yorker and then appeared as a book. That book started a movement, and I’m hoping Elizabeth Kolbert will trigger renewed attention to the environment. She concluded her series by saying, “It may seem impossible that a technologically advanced society could choose in essence to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” I prefer to think not.
More encouraging is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Jared Diamond, who wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel. His more recent book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, discusses historical events and the collapse of empires from the political, religious, and economic perspective. He includes the ecological factors as well, however, so you are given a much more complete picture of why societies do collapse.
The most recent episode he describes is the genocide in Rwanda. It was preceded by about twenty years of prosperity, during which families expanded greatly, and things were going well for them until they began to become land poor as more and more people were inheriting smaller and smaller parcels of land. Then, in the early 1990s there was a drought. The rain stopped, and food crops fell short. Landless, hungry young men began roaming the countryside, and ethnic tensions exploded, triggering the ensuing slaughter. By emphasizing the ecological factors Jared Diamond deepens our understanding of how societies go wrong. Collapse has been on The New York Times best-seller list for many weeks, which helps to get the message out.
Toward the end of Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress he contends: “The great advantage we have, our best chance for avoiding the fate of failed past societies, is that we know how and why they went wrong. We now have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, and set economic limits in line with natural ones.”
I believe this is true, and it’s what I’m going to talk about from now on. No more bad news; I just want to convey a sense of urgency. I think the underlying failure of thought in our current way of doing things, which has brought us to the brink, was summed up by Woody Allen in five words. He said, “Nature and I are two.” It was partly this misconception that led me to write my book A Safe and Sustainable World, which is intended for the people one has arguments with who still don’t see what the problems are. It’s not a didactic book; at least I hope it isn’t. It takes readers on the adventure of the career John Todd and I have shared and relates some of the Aha! moments we have experienced. That way I hope to communicate not only our sense of urgency but also our belief that solutions are available to us if we choose to go the right route.
When I first submitted the manuscript, the publishers were horrified. It was impenetrable. It was far too long and included the name of every person we ever worked with. They sent it back to be drastically pruned, which made it much more readable as a result. Rather than just telling a rambling story, I had to figure out for myself what the most important theme was, and of course it turned out to be what we had learned from our work and our research. That is what I’ve tried to convey to readers.
New Alchemy was founded at the very end of the 1960s as a question. Let me tell you a story first, and then I’ll tell you what the question was. John Todd, with his freshly minted Ph.D., had his first teaching job. I had small children and was active in the peace movement. A group of our friends—colleagues and students of John’s who were back-to-the-landers—had settled on some beautiful land just outside San Diego. It was hilly, covered with manzanita bushes, and a little on the scruffy side. There were magnificent skies and a lot of sun, providing tremendous potential for solar and wind power.
The group approached John and said: “We want to try and be self-sufficient or at least somewhat self-sufficient. Can you come to take a look and tell us what to do?” I went too because it was a wonderful place to take the children. Once there, the distinguished academics began fanning out over the land but soon became disheartened. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of tillable soil, and there was no water to be seen. The only things that were thriving were the manzanita bushes. We had no idea how our friends could be self-sufficient there, and we told them so. But John also said: “The problem is that we don’t know enough. We have to learn to listen to the land.”
It was decided that we would take another look, and this time each person would be responsible for one element: soil type, soil animals such as worms, the microbes and bacteria, the plants, insects, animals, trees, shrubs. Everything. It was hard work because there wasn’t much there, but as we settled in, we began to get a better sense of the place. There was one beautiful large tree, a live oak. There was also a plant, which we keyed out, discovering that its roots needed water. We realized that there was at least enough soil to support that tree, and the plant was an indication that water was not that far beneath the surface.
Gradually it emerged that they could find a way of living on that site. There was energy for a water-pumping windmill, which could bring water to the surface, and with that they could irrigate, compost, create tillable soil, plant a garden, and establish an aquaculture system. The land had the makings of, if not self-sufficiency, at least self-reliance in energy, food, and water. We came to the conclusion that yes, they could live there.
The story ended rather badly, though. The landlady came out from town, a rather overbearing little woman, wearing very high heels. Our friends were gentle and long-haired and more or less hippie types. She said, “I’m raising the rent,” and they said, “We can’t afford an increase.” So they had to leave the land, and she subsequently developed it. In spite of the bad ending, however, we left with a strong sense of mission, and what became the New Alchemy Institute was founded on the question, Is it possible to support the current global population sustainably? At that point we honestly didn’t know the answer.
Soon after that we left California, crossed the country, and established ourselves on Cape Cod on twelve very sandy acres that became the home of New Alchemy. Again we were confronted with poor soil. The land had been a former dairy farm, which left it with not only sandy but compacted soil. The first summer we made hundreds of tons of compost. We went to restaurants and school cafeterias, and we carted off their waste. We were shameless. But as a result we built up rich fertile soil. We cared for it, and every year of the twenty years we were there, the soil improved.
In addressing our founding question, we divided our experiments in sustainability into the categories of food, energy, and shelter. In the way of food we had established vegetable gardens, grew fruit, and planted tree crops. We also experimented with aquaculture. In so many parts of the world there are people who are undernourished and protein deprived. We thought if we could find ways of growing fish in areas that weren’t strictly vegetarian, there would be the potential for protein for undernourished children and adults.
That was our motivation. Our co-founder, Bill McLarney, adored fish, and he would have grown them anyway, so we provided him with a good reason to do it. The fish we decided on was tilapia, an African variety that is hardy and will tolerate a diet high in vegetable material, even algae, so they are not expensive to feed. We were able to demonstrate that if a country or a region chose to raise tilapia, it could indeed produce increased protein. Tilapia are now available in supermarkets and fish stores across the country. We never made a cent from it, however, which will tell you something about how practical we are. I heard recently that some cities in various African countries are considering installing aquaculture systems based on the ones we had at New Alchemy.
In the way of energy we started with windmills and then expanded to solar design, which—together with year-round food growing—we integrated into shelters in order to achieve our focus on food, energy, and shelter.
By 1976 we had built two greenhouse-like structures, which we called Arks, after Noah, because arks are places where you can protect life during tempestuous times. They are also called bioshelters. There is a picture of the one on Cape Cod on the cover of my book. It has been lovingly renovated and is in full use as a greenhouse, also providing solar heat for an adjacent house. The Ark on Prince Edward Island was considered high-profile enough to have Prime Minster Pierre Elliott Trudeau come to give an address at the grand opening. I said at the time that I would give him a lecture on the dangers inherent in nuclear power, and I managed to do so.
By the time we opened the Arks it was clear to us that our founding paradigm was no longer a question. The overriding result was that we learned at New Alchemy that it is possible to provide for the present population of the world sustainably. That is a crucial piece of knowledge. It means we can move forward with hope.
This is the summary in my book of what we learned there: “What was most important about New Alchemy and will remain so, was that it was the birthplace and incubator for ideas that are the building blocks for sustainable and lasting cultures. We had, in our experiments in applied Gaia, decoded some of the elements for healing both people and the planet, and had helped to give the work what Gregory Bateson had called ‘an epistemology with a future.’ The seeds and thought forms that we planted and so carefully tended at New Alchemy continue to spread and take root.”
That phase of our existence ended when Margaret Mead came into our lives. She had other ideas for us. She accepted New Alchemy fully, but she felt it wasn’t yet needed in this country. She thought we should take our achievements in food productivity and aquaculture and renewable energy to the parts of the world that not only need them but are ready for them. Now, John Todd feels about boats the way Bill McLarney feels about fish, so he came up with the idea of putting the bioshelter or ark with its plants and various biological materials on a boat and sailing to impoverished areas of the world to help people restore ecosystems. Hence the name of our new venture, Ocean Arks International.
We did get a grant from the Canadian government, but just as funding for places like New Alchemy dried up with the election of President Reagan, funding for Ocean Arks dried up with the election of Prime Minister Brian Mulrooney. After a period of attempting to get our ideas afloat, we built a humbler version of an Ocean Ark, which we called an ocean pick-up, but we didn’t have the money for all the necessary experiments.
After some time in Costa Rica working on this venture we returned to Cape Cod and were shocked to learn that a number of people we knew had developed cancer. The water on the Cape is very contaminated, and we wondered if there might be a connection. With the name Ocean Arks already established and known, we thought it would be a good idea to dedicate our new organization to the restoration of water. That is what we did.
We derived our water-purifying technology from some of the aquaculture systems at New Alchemy. The most productive of these were housed in great tanks or vats—often connected by tubing—in which we established an aquatic ecosystem that fed as well as housed the fish. These systems proved as productive as any aquaculture units in the world. This work had been supported for many years by the National Science Foundation. Remembering this, John decided that, having learned the water chemistry of contained ecosystems so thoroughly at New Alchemy, we could perhaps again adapt that same knowledge and this time use it to purify water.
Rather than try to tell you technically how it’s done, which demands a complex knowledge of biology, I’ll tell you one or two stories about our experiments. The first took place in Harwich on Cape Cod, where we had been asked if we could restore or purify a septage lagoon, which contained sewage from septic tanks. Septage is 40 to 100 times more concentrated than sewage. This lagoon, which I likened to Dante’s Inferno, was located in sandy soil, about twenty feet above the water table. Water from the septage lagoon was draining down into the water table, the source of public drinking water.
On the far side of the lagoon we lined up a long row of cylindrical tanks, twenty-one in all. The only other structural unit was a wooden trough whose contents resembled a marsh, filled with aquatic plants. Water in the first tank came straight out of the lagoon—black miserable stuff—and passed through each tank, then trickled through the simulated marsh. At the last tank, purified water came out crystal clear. This water was tested by various independent laboratories. After the first test we were accused of cheating. We sent in a second test, and the water, which had contained fourteen highly dangerous carcinogens, three of them in high concentrations, again proved virtually purified.
Over the four-month trial period thirteen of the carcinogens had been completely eliminated. The pollutants had been broken down by the aquatic ecosystems. That was an Aha! experience for us because it told us we are capable of cleaning up dangerously contaminated bodies of water. I used to say it is our belief that we can clean up just about any pollution except for radioactivity. I have since learned that in fact there is somebody working effectively on radioactivity.
What convinced the business world that we have a viable technology was a project we did for the Mars Corporation to treat waste from one of its chocolate factories. We had installed a small prototype system to treat 10 percent of the total waste stream. Then one Friday afternoon a combined computer and human error directed the entire waste stream into our contained ecosystem. Just as the operators were leaving for the weekend, they found the system boiling over. Tanks of oily effluent were overflowing. There were dying fish on the floor, and plants had been displaced—a terrible mess. The horrified engineers turned their backs, locked the doors, and went home.
They came back Monday morning dreading the mess they would have to face. To their amazement the tanks were again functioning normally. I’m not trying to tell you that they didn’t have to mop the floor or that the dead fish had revived. And they did have to right some plants and so forth. But in the main the system was working as it should. My analogy is to Thanksgiving dinner: you may feel decidedly uncomfortable afterward, but give it a day or so, and you’re fine again. A living system does have the ability to adjust its metabolism. That episode was an Aha! experience for the engineers and then for the executives. E-mails, faxes, and phone calls flew back and forth, and as a result we were given wonderful contracts to work at some of the other Mars factories.
Through our work in cleaning up human and industrial waste as well as polluted rivers, ponds, and lakes, Ocean Arks has demonstrated that it is possible to restore contaminated bodies of water. Our most recent project took place in southern China, in Fuzhou. Although it is a modern city with skyscrapers, all the sewage drained untreated into a 50-mile network of foul-smelling canals. Once again we were asked, Can you treat it? And we recklessly answered yes. The Ocean Arks crew installed long rafts along the half-mile stretch of our demonstration project. Attached containers were seeded with the appropriate life-forms, which included bacteria, plants, and finally fish.
Gradually those sewage-laden canals were completely purified. They came to life and created habitat for fish. They no longer smelled. Once the plants began to grow, birds and butterflies that people hadn’t seen in years appeared. This thoroughly convinced us that if only this country too would make the required commitment, the rampant pollution we’re living with can be eliminated.
The other major discovery made by Ocean Arks comes from a maxim of ecological design that defines waste as a resource out of place and at the same time a potential base for products that can be used for small-scale businesses. After we proved our sewage treatment methods in South Burlington, Vermont, a local brewer asked if we could also treat brewery waste. We introduced the liquid portion into tanks according to our usual system. One of the by-products of making beer is a mash, which we used to feed fish. The fish were the first product from the waste and constituted the basis of an aquaculture business. We sold the fish to restaurants in Burlington.
We further used the brewery waste, inoculated with fungi spores, as a substrate for growing magnificent oyster mushrooms. Other saleable products from this substrate were compost, earthworms, decorative plants, bagged soil amendment, and salad greens. We grew the greens only in the off-season because we didn’t want to compete with local farmers.
Being able to obtain half a dozen products just from brewery waste provides, I think, a model for the direction we need to go in. We can take the underutilized products from various manufacturing enterprises and, instead of considering them waste material, see them as useful products which can be sources for creating small self-sufficient economies that will be far less vulnerable to the global and meteorological perturbations that lie ahead. Our work in South Burlington substantiated John Todd’s theory that integrated ecological systems have economic potential.
We have learned from our experiences at Ocean Arks of the great range of opportunities for creating interconnected, regional, and far more durable economies of scale. John and three of his Vermont colleagues, who were formerly his students, have established small businesses that are doing very well. One colleague is a young man who owns many acres of beautiful forestland. Inspired by the great mycologist Paul Stamets, he wanted to grow mushrooms for medicinal as well as nutritional purposes. He went to various banks to see how much he would have to invest to create the infrastructure he needed and learned that it would be very expensive. John then suggested that he use his forest. He did, and he is growing mushrooms there without disturbing the woods. He is also brewing something called mushroom tea, which is very popular in Burlington. Students assure us it’s far better than drinking coffee for late-night studying.
As a result of our work at both New Alchemy and Ocean Arks, we have gained greater hope for what can be done. Much of it is already well underway. As author Alice Walker said, “Everything we love can be saved.”
I’d like to give you a few more hopeful signs we’ve come across in the course of our work. You probably know that Germany is the world’s largest user of photovoltaic cells, and it is on target for meeting its goal of using renewable energy for half of its energy needs by 2050. Denmark is equally or even more advanced.
The Bush administration’s refusal to sign the Kyoto Agreement notwithstanding, it’s not as though nothing is being done about climate change in this country. Many of our cities are implementing the Kyoto standards or even stricter ones on their own. Mayors from five continents met this past year in San Francisco and agreed to take responsibility for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. They drew up a set of twenty-one environmental goals, which they are implementing. Their urban environmental accords cover energy use, waste reduction, and improved urban design. They have created score cards to monitor their progress. More than 140 American cities have signed on.
One of the people doing work analogous to what we do at Ocean Arks in terms of restoring ecosystems is Paul Stamets, who not only uses mushroom products medicinally but has created what he calls myco-technologies, which have important implications for human health. He has also found ways to clean up lethal toxins, rehabilitate degraded and polluted landscapes, speed up soil restoration, and enhance soil fertility. His photographs of clear-cut areas show how much more quickly regrowth has taken place in the areas he has treated. There are others who are developing equally sophisticated techniques of bioremediation using bacteria that clean up large areas of contaminated soil, are introducing biosolvents for treating oil spills, and are pioneering in the use of nonpolluting biodiesels for transportation. Biosolids and hyperaccumulators that suck heavy metals out of soil are being used to remediate metal contaminants as well as to protect soil fertility and preserve food. Decontaminators are being researched for treating radioactive soil. All this work is going forward and unquestionably will make a difference.
At The Land Institute in Kansas Wes Jackson, a Schu-macher speaker, is developing perennial grains that can be harvested year after year, thus eliminating the disastrous soil depletion, compaction, and erosion that are caused by plowing and raising annual crops. Disregard for the soil was a major factor in the failure of flood control farther south along the Mississippi. The devastation caused by hurricane Katrina would have been much less severe if so many trees along the river had not been cut and if the soil had not been so compacted by both cattle and constant harvesting that it had lost its ability to percolate moisture. All of these factors affect the river, causing it to run much more quickly than it would have if left on its own. A storm like Katrina is partly human in cause as well as a natural disaster.
On with the litany of people doing amazing work: In a time of hybridization and genetic engineering Diane and Kent Whealy, through their Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, are collecting and saving seeds to safeguard the genetic diversity of not only our food stocks but also other plants cherished for their beauty and usefulness. Traditional seeds are being kept and stored in India as well on Vandana Shiva’s farm, Bija Vidyapeeth. The seeds are stored in many carefully labeled containers in a small, unassuming building. Because farmers have always saved their own seeds, they have never had to buy them, but now big companies like Cargill and Monsanto are making every effort to persuade farmers to buy genetically modified seeds from the companies. Resisting this attempt, Vandana Shiva’s group is collecting seeds on a large scale, both preserving them and giving them away to farmers. As a result, an area northwest of Delhi has a sizeable contingent of organic farmers and farmers who still use traditional seeds.
Judy Wicks, who gave a Schumacher lecture last year, has used her own small restaurant, the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, to raise ecological awareness through the celebration of food and to serve as a catalyst for restoring the economy of her area. In order to insure a supply of organic food she has developed a relationship with area farmers and growers, which has led her to become a spokesperson not only for the organic movement and for social justice but also for the environment. After all, you can’t produce healthful food in a contaminated environment. Judy Wicks has had a major influence on the economy of her region, as has Alice Waters, who opened Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley over thirty years ago. What she has done there has had a positive impact on the food system of the Bay Area.
One of her projects has been to introduce gardens in schoolyards and involve students in their care. Catherine Sneed, another Schumacher speaker, has been creating organic prison gardens for years. Alice Waters linked up with her to install gardens in the yard of San Bruno prison. When I visited there, one of the gardeners, an older man, told me that working in the garden had saved his life. He is certainly not the only one for whom that is true. When prisoners who have worked in a garden are released, they have a much reduced likelihood of going back on drugs and being sent to prison again.
Then there is the Slow Food movement, which advocates the best possible locally grown food. My sister is an organic farmer and is part of the movement in Nova Scotia. She says it is thriving. Thinking holistically can have enormous repercussions. It encourages preservation of the soil, conservation of the land, raised awareness on the part of both customer and grower, and high-quality food.
One of my favorite examples of the evolution of ecological consciousness is provided by a potter friend of mine, Joan Lederman, who is based on Cape Cod. A few years ago a fellow who went out regularly on the Woods Hole Oceanographic boats to take bottom samples brought her a pail of sea mud and asked if she could do anything with it. She tried firing some of it, but it didn’t work. She kept the mud anyway because people who visited her shop seemed to like it, and she was developing an intuitive feeling about it.
One day when she was doing a firing, she streaked some sea mud on the pots as a glaze. When she brought them out, the sea mud had self-created the most marvelous patterns of dendrites, the same patterns you get in plant roots or in tree limbs. They are exquisite. As a lofty art critic in Britain said, “It’s something like the big bang.” Looking at the patterns on Joan’s pots, you are given a sense of the vitality of all life in unexpected places. The bottom of the sea is speaking to you from the bowl in which you put your chips and salsa. It raises your ecological consciousness, and you can’t deny the interconnectedness between us humans and the natural world.
In his latest book, The Last Refuge: Patriotism, Politics, and the Environment in an Age of Terror, David Orr gives his solid reasons for hope. In the following contrast between “we” and “they,” by “we” he means those of us who adhere to the tenets of sustainability, who are aware that there is a problem and that there are many ways of tackling it. “They,” of course, are those who do not adhere to those tenets. David Orr claims:
We have better ideas than they do.
There are more of us than there are of them.
There is the growing power of world opinion, the millions around the world who demonstrated before the Iraq War.
It is evident that an economy organized around the convenience of the top 5 percent cannot be maintained for long.
The facts are on our side.
Our technology is better than theirs.
The course we are on now runs counter to the best traditions.
The world is more complicated than the neo-cons and the new imperialists would have it. There is a new Enlightenment underway that is creating what has been called the world’s other superpower.
In her book Biomimicry Janine Benyus tells about her work using biological processes within industry to mimic the natural world. She likes to point out that there is nothing we can make that’s stronger and more flexible than a spider’s web. She is using that kind of biological understanding of the world to reduce our use of polluting products. A strong advocate of the growing field of green chemistry, she is having considerable effect on a number of industries.
All these many examples I have given reinforce my sense that the knowledge we need is available. It is John Todd’s opinion that we already know how to reduce the human footprint on the natural world by 90 percent if we really make the effort. And Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute believes we know how to make the economy about 90 percent more efficient than it is. John and I think it’s high time to make that knowledge more widely known and available, and Ocean Arks in its present course is trying to be a resource for this kind of information. Our web site is www.oceanarks.org.
I want to touch on the spiritual dimension by way of my favorite interpreter Thomas Berry. His enlightened thinking is helping to craft a sacred cosmology or worldview that sees all of creation as involved in a great cosmic dance, drawing on all of life to participate and to bear witness. He invites us all to join in the Great Work (the title of one of his books) of being our planet’s keeper. He contends: “We were chosen by some power beyond ourselves for this historical task. We do not choose the moment of our birth, who our parents will be, our particular culture, or the historical moment when we will be born. The nobility of our lives, however, depends on the manner in which we come to understand and fulfill our assigned role.”
Many years ago, when we were just starting New Alchemy, I came across a marvelous manifesto by the poet Gary Snyder. It is in a book called Turtle Island, and when I bought a second copy of it not long ago, I discovered that by the mid 1970s it had won a Pulitzer Prize. The manifesto, entitled “Four Changes,” lays out what has to be done and is still relevant today. Gary Snyder wrote: “Our own heads is where it starts. Knowing we are the first people in history to have so much of human history and previous culture available to our study and being free enough of the weight of traditional cultures to seek out a larger identity; we are the first members of a civilized society since the Neolithic to look clearly into the eyes of the wild and see our selfhood, our family there.”
I should like to conclude with a brief passage from my own book: “Our heart-stoppingly beautiful home planet, suspended and palpably alive in the vast darkness of space, is, as far as we know, unique. But if a handful of people who called themselves New Alchemists and Ocean Arkers could learn what has to be done to protect and restore the Earth, it does not take an enormous leap of faith to imagine what could happen if communities, states, countries, and international alliances were to dedicate themselves to working on behalf of the life of the planet.”
Excerpts from the Question & Answer Period
Q: I know people here in the Berkshires who are resisting windmills because they don’t want to see the beauty here destroyed or disturbed. What are your thoughts on this?
A: I have mixed feelings. I think windmills are advisable in certain areas. Wind profile dictates to a large degree where they belong. Renewables need to be site specific, and with a river like the Connecticut it seems to me that water power ought to be seriously considered as well. I would say, however, that windmills are far preferable to nuclear power. There are environmentalists who are now saying nuclear power may be unavoidable during the transition to better sources. It isn’t! In the current issue of Annals of Earth I present all the arguments against nuclear power. Just imagine an intelligent but fanatic group of well-trained young engineers taking over a nuclear facility. In an editorial in a recent issue of The New Yorker Hendrick Hertzberg writes that he sees nuclear terrorism as the greatest threat of our time.
Q: My husband and I went to look at windmills recently, and I personally was impressed by their appearance, particularly the Vespas. I was told that the wife of the CEO of Vespas is the one who designed the tapering elegance of the windmill. The GE windmill is not offensive, but it doesn’t have quite that elegance. Would you say something about what importance you think there is to the artistry of some of what we’re trying to do?
A: I think the aesthetics are of paramount importance. And we have to admit that so much of the current paradigm has produced a lot of ugliness. Green architecture and green building are moving the fastest right now in the direction of aesthetics, with the use of plants and natural lighting. Associates of ours who designed our Arks on Cape Cod and Prince Edward Island have just designed the Canadian government building on Prince Edward Island, and it’s beautiful. It’s full of plants and has running water in it; it lets you experience many aspects of the natural world. On the whole, the natural world is beautiful, and if we design not only our food and purification systems but also our buildings to mirror it, they will be beautiful too. For me, writing and the visual arts have a way of raising consciousness. When I give my consciousness-raising talk, I show beautiful slides or visuals because they capture the heart in a way mere information can’t. And I find windmills beautiful too.
Q: Recently I heard Richard Heinberg talk about the peak-oil issue. My question is whether we can make the transition to other energy sources quickly enough, or whether we are in fact going to be experiencing peak oil as early as 2007 or 2010, as some predict. In Massachusetts we are receiving less than 1 per cent of our energy from renewables.
A: I think if we as a nation were to apply the knowledge we have to making the transition and to rank it a high priority, then it would be possible. It would be hard work, but we are capable of it. We already have the technology, some of it tried, some still being developed.
For instance, we have a neighbor on Cape Cod who is Russian. He is a civil engineer and was instrumental in designing the Aswan Dam in Egypt. Once it was finished, he was aghast at the social dislocation and the environmental damage it caused, and he vowed that he would do something to make amends. He has invented an underwater electric generator called the Gorlov rotor, designed along the same lines as a double helix. The rotor was first tested in the Cape Cod Canal. It is installed on the bottom of a body of water, where it creates a water barrier around it so that it causes minimal damage to wildlife. It starts working in about two knots of current. A series of them are being installed along the coast of South Korea, and when completed within a year or so will generate as much electricity as three or four nuclear plants.
We worked conceptually on a project for a new urban area outside of London. There too, people didn’t like the visual aspect of windmills. We determined that the nearby Thames runs between 2 and 8 knots, which means that a great deal of power could be produced from the river. The same holds true for many coastal areas.
Another point that’s often overlooked is the great potential for job creation from development of renewable energy. Manufacturing and installing the Gorlov rotor offers employment opportunities, as do windmills and photovoltaics. This is a positive factor in the transition to these technologies.
Q: I teach in a community college, and it occurs to me that educators could have an enormous impact on communicating the values you were speaking about. It’s always been a wonder to me how many great ideas there are in the world and how few of them filter down to people on the high school and community college levels. Do you know of any efforts being made to bring together educators who are interested in trying to establish programs within their communities, within their colleges and high schools to provide this kind of information and convey the possibilities for communities to develop in a different way? I’m thinking of a consortium through which we could help one another learn and communicate with local folks.
A: I’d like to throw that question open to everybody because I don’t know of many specific programs along that line. I agree with you that it’s vital. John Todd’s students graduate with the knowledge we’re talking about, but that’s only a hundred a year at most.
Q: My husband and I are just back from the GEN [Global Ecovillage Network] Plus Ten conference at Findhorn. Ten years ago the United Nations joined with Findhorn and others in starting the ecovillage movement. At the conference a new curriculum for sustainability was launched. You can get it from Global Ecovillage Network (gen.ecovillage.org). And by the way, there are now eleven thousand ecovillages in the world.
[Another voice from the audience:] I suggest introducing school gardens. I know of several schools that have them. The children not only do the planting and the harvesting but, if the facility is there, the cooking and the eating. Although nonacademic on the surface, it’s a wonderful learning tool.
A: Alice Waters did it in Berkeley in an inner-city school, where most of the students were either eating packaged food or not sitting down to regular meals at all. Now they not only grow and serve the food they eat, but once a week or so they invite their families. They set the table, and it looks beautiful, sometimes with flowers on the table, and they sit down together. This had not been part of their lives, and it’s something that first of all the students and then their families really thrive on. In the inner cities an outdoor garden becomes more of a challenge because there isn’t enough space. But there can be at least a few indoor plants.
[John Todd from the audience:] What holds us back in New England is that most of the growing season is when the kids are not in school. I propose that each schoolyard have a gorgeous solar-heated bioshelter, where the children can grow, cook and eat food in the same facility.
[Another voice:] I’d like to add to the idea of school gardens. What about prisons? What about mental institutions? What about hospitals? Gardening is therapeutic, it’s restorative, it creates all kinds of wonderful byproducts for people, so it’s a movement that could cut across the whole society.
Q: How do you take these ideas that are so important and bring them to the cities so that we can reach millions more people?
A: Green design can be incorporated into classrooms anywhere. There’s always a way of introducing something that’s alive, even if it’s a pet turtle. Ocean Arks has designed a manual for making a classroom living-machine, and you can build a curriculum around that. It’s something like a fish tank but more complicated. John has experimented with what happens when you add various contaminants to the water. The children get the picture very quickly. You can find the information in Annals of Earth, or you can e-mail us at email@example.com, and we’ll make sure you get a pamphlet on how to do it.
Q: Has the success you’ve had doing environmental clean-up for corporations had any effect on corporate attitudes? Has there been any effort to create less pollution or work more sustainably?
A: I think what persuades corporations is the bottom line. In the long run these techniques are cost effective, which means they save money. Companies are open to our work because it makes sense financially, not because they want to save the world.
Q: What specifically would make the biggest impact right now? What is the one demand we should be trumpeting, the people’s demand?
A: I would say converting to renewable energy as quickly as possible.
First an announcement: One of the students here from Manhattanville College suggested something wonderfully concrete we all can do. She handed me the People’s Ratification of the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty. I’m going to put out copies for you. If each of us takes one and passes it around to friends and fellow community members, we can start to bring some pressure to bear. This initiative comes from a very young woman, and I think we should encourage her.
Christopher Budd, my remark to you is that I’m delighted because you use biological metaphors in a conversation about economics. Thank you especially for presenting the concept of a membrane, and thank you for using the word “alchemical.”
Going back to my story of the tanks overflowing at the Mars Company, I feel today as if I have a spot of intellectual indigestion, but I’m quite sure that by going home and letting myself digest, I will find that I have learned a great deal, and I thank you and Tom Linzey enormously.
The other thought that has been with me throughout the day is that we now understand so much, both of what is going wrong and what could be done better. My intuition tells me that we have reached a healing phase. We’re still very broken as a culture, as a global people, but I think we’ve reached the point where we can begin to heal. We have an understanding of the various systems—political, economic, legal—and we know definitely what can be done in terms of ecological design. We also know that we can do it.
When people are not well, their mindset has a good deal to do with whether they heal or not. The healing process is in your heart and your spirit as much as in your body. So as we all leave now and begin to digest what we’ve learned, I suggest that we think of ourselves as going collectively into the world to heal it and to heal ourselves, thus setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy.