It’s Time for a Change

We’re living in strange times.  On the one hand, the trend toward equality, acceptance, and accountability that can be traced from abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage through the civil rights movement, same-sex marriage equality, transgender equality, and #MeToo is continuing, weakening age-old patriarchal structures and giving me cause for hope.

On the other hand, we are living in a nation increasingly divided by hatred and fear, where ideologies and stereotypes metastasize in online echo chambers and dissenting voices are silenced.   We can no longer even agree on simple facts, let alone compromise on questions of values.  Our political systems are gridlocked, our infrastructure is decaying, and our collective response to looming crises such as climate change, dwindling fossil fuels, and topsoil loss has entered a pattern of public denial and blissful ignorance.


What is Going On?

In a phrase: systemic financial insecurity.

Roughly 50% of Americans cannot afford an unexpected $500 expense without incurring debt.  This in a time when car repairs frequently cost $2000, an unexpected broken bone can cost $10,000, raising a child to adulthood costs around $200,000, and a comfortable retirement savings – with enough to cover assisted living and long-term care – approaches $1 million.  We are a nation on the edge, surviving day to day with uncertainty filling both short-term and long-term horizons with anxiety.  In this state we can’t bear to think about larger challenges like climate change, so we simply ignore them.

When we are feeling afraid, we have a tendency to protect ourselves, to put our family first, our self-identified communities first, our nation first.  Fear is divisive; it is not at all coincidence that pre-war Syria, pre-war Germany, and perhaps a majority of pre-war states were marked by a high level of economic insecurity.  We become suspicious of anyone who appears to be competing for our resources and vulnerable to propaganda that would blame immigrants, minorities, religions, or other nations for our woes.  And there is plenty of such propaganda, released and encouraged by those who control the wealth (and the media), and who have much to lose should their prominent role in creating this situation come to light.

We have gone so far in our fear as to elect a master propagandist to lead our nation; one who is the very emblem of profligate wealth and who gives control of government to the richest of the rich while convincing those who are most insecure that he is their champion.


How Did We Get Here?

There have been books written on this subject; in being brief I will inevitably be incomplete, but I believe that the pattern is quite simple.  In short:

  1. Commodification.  With industrialization and improved transportation came economies of scale.  The local blacksmith who made plowshares now had to compete with The American Plow Company, which cast uniform plowshares by the millions.  Products that were previously custom-built or raised by craftspeople – from meat and vegetables to tools to furniture to garments – were mass-produced in assembly lines.  The craftsfolk could no longer compete, and were forced to “get big or get out.”  The commodification process has been happening for a long time – since our great-grandparents’ generation and before.  By and large Americans survived the earlier phases of this transition in good financial shape, because the United States dominated global manufacturing and employed workers to build goods for the world.
  2. Globalization.  More recently, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s with various free trade agreements, national commodities have become international commodities.  This presents a problem because, for reasons of financial imbalance among nations and varying regulatory environments, farming and manufacturing in some nations is substantially cheaper than in others.  In effect, the United States and Western Europe economically colonized much of the rest of the world, at huge cost to the citizens and cultures of the colonized countries.  I’ll gloss over that for now because my focus is on United States citizens.  The effect of globalization here was both to eliminate jobs as production moved overseas and to drive down wages in order to compete on a global playing field.
  3. Consumerism.  We have been sold on the idea that we ought to buy as much stuff as we can afford, and that the only worthwhile criterion for differentiating otherwise-similar stuff is price.  Thus we are in favor of commodification and globalization, even as we suffer for it.
  4. Wealth extraction.  As more Americans cannot afford to buy homes and vehicles and to cover emergency expenses, we acquire debt.  Debt that must be paid with interest.  We pay rent to landlords for the privilege of having shelter.  The interest and rent is, of course, collected by those who had extra money to invest.  As economic growth stagnates (which is inevitable as we reach the carrying capacity of a finite planet), wealthy Americans are transitioning from investing in the stock market (which reflects to the economy as a whole) to investing in loans and real estate that extract wealth directly from those who are already economically insecure.

In one sense, we are all complicit in getting where we are, in that we are a democracy and we have allowed money to buy power.  We have believed in “trickle-down” promises.  We have often accepted our plight while idolizing the wealthy.  We have looked up, toward those better-off, and aimed to get there ourselves without considering how our lives are already disadvantaging others.  I feel this myself as a duplex owner; extracting money from poorer student renters in order to pay interest to the wealthy investors who own our home loan.  We have accepted a tacit assumption that everybody could be as well-off as we are, and that if they are not then they have failed somehow, or they will get there someday.  We have focused primarily on individual access to opportunity, while ignoring the systemic problem that a majority of the job/career opportunities now available do not pay enough to provide any semblance of financial security.


What Can We Do About It?

There is much that we can do locally, if we have the resources.  We can choose to buy from local farmers, artists, and producers, even when cost is substantially higher.  We can buy through local retailers rather than big box stores or online outlets.  If we sell a good or service, we can offer a sliding scale to increase accessibility, or we can accept trades of goods or services in return for our own.  In wealthier communities, with enough commitment, we can create thriving local economies and fairer compensation in the face of a broken national and global system.

However, to really effect change – and to help impoverished communities where few have enough wealth to vote with their wallets – we must change legislation at local, state, and national levels.  There is much we can do; here are a few ideas:

  1. Universal Health Care.  This one is a no-brainer, and is finally gathering enough political steam that it stands a chance at success.  Every other developed country has some form of universal health care, while we in the United States pay three times more for care that is not functionally or qualitatively better, and in many cases we are forced to declare personal bankruptcy or to forego potentially life-saving treatments for lack of financial resources.  Nearly every analysis agrees that we would pay less overall in a single-payer system, which would cut out a substantial amount of bureaucracy (i.e. administrative jobs that do not contribute to better health outcomes) while allowing elected officials to negotiate rates with providers in a transparent manner.  Health care expenses (both skyrocketing premiums and unexpected injury/illness) are a leading cause of financial insecurity, and solving this would go a long way.
  2. Living Wage.  It used to be that dirty and dangerous jobs in mines and factories paid enough to support a family.  Now they barely pay enough to pay rent for one person.  Rather than a federal minimum wage, we need a locally-variable minimum wage based on a minimum standard of living.  I might propose enough to raise a child as a single parent while owning a vehicle and paying a mortgage on a modest house/rent on a modest apartment and not relying on any federal assistance programs.  In places that might be double or more the current minimum wage.  Such increases would shock the economy and drive inflation so would need to be implemented gradually, but any job that requires a full-time commitment ought to compensate workers sufficiently to live comfortably.
  3. Price Floors.  Along with living wages, and especially in areas such as farming where many are self-employed and not earning a wage, price floors could be calculated as the lowest value for a product that allows its producers to earn a living wage.  Price floors must be accompanied by a mechanism to manage overproduction; I won’t go into it here but Wendell Berry has some excellent examples of how that has been and could be done in an agricultural setting.  Tariffs on imported goods become essential so that these do not undermine price floors and living wages for domestic producers.  This may be the lone concept on which I agree with Mr. Trump, though I suspect he is only thinking about benefits for corporate leadership and privileging some industries at the expense of others.  In the absence of legal price floors, voluntary ones could be established and marketed in much the same was as “fair trade” coffee and chocolate.  Some consumers would willingly pay more to ensure that all workers in the chain of production are fairly compensated.
  4. Maximum Wage.  A much more controversial idea; I believe strongly that no one person’s hour of work is worth indefinitely more than another’s.  As a start, I would envision a maximum wage set at roughly ten times the minimum living wage, though the exact ratio could be adjusted.  Trimming high wages and equivalent compensation (e.g. stock options) would make room for a rise in low-end wages without a proportional increase in product cost to the consumer.
  5. Flexible Working Hours.  There is no divine rule that says every able adult needs to work 40 hours a week in order for society’s needs to be met.  As jobs are lost to automation, we keep creating jobs – often fairly meaningless or unnecessary ones – in order to maintain full employment.  Perhaps we will reach a state of automation in which we only need to work 25 hours a week on average.  Would that be a problem?  I envision pinning the federal work week to the unemployment rate such that when unemployment rises, working hours decrease until the unemployed workers are hired.  When unemployment drops below a threshold, working hours could increase back to a cap at the current 40-hour week.
  6. Debt Forgiveness.  There may come a time, in economic recession, when a large number of financially-insecure Americans are facing bankruptcy due to unpayable debts.  Rather than allowing bankruptcy on an individual basis, it may be preferable (and much better for those indebted) to declare a partial debt jubilee, in which a percentage of all debt is simply wiped away.  This represents a wealth redistribution from debt holders to debt owers (i.e. from the financially secure to the financially insecure), and it has historical precedent in a number of societies.


So…where to start?  Bernie Sanders had the right idea in many ways, though he is too old to really lead a movement.  I’m a personal fan of Tulsi Gabbard or Tammy Duckworth as presidential options.  But it’s not only about a president, and we can’t invest too much hope in a political savior.  We need to build a movement on all political levels.  We can’t ignore the atrocities of the Trump administration, but we also can’t let his wham-bang shock doctrine tweetstorm distract us from building a coherent strategy in time for the next election cycle.  We don’t need to allow the current government to set the terms and acceptable limits of debate; we can elect a new Congress that will change the terms entirely.

Women are wise in many ways, less willing to accept the winner-take-all, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, “individual responsibility” story that is parroted as an excuse for the status quo.  I’m hopeful that the rise of women with #MeToo and #TimesUp will bring about a corresponding influx of feminine wisdom into political discourse.

The news – in the various national media sources – is not fake, no matter how much some would like to believe it.  We have not stooped to that level, and I hope that we don’t.  The news is, however, selective.  Advertisers and media moguls alike belong to the privileged classes, and we can expect that movements to reclaim wealth and power for the masses will receive biased coverage or no coverage at all.  For that reason we need to create unbiased media outlets, carefully moderated and purged of conspiracy-type or speculation-based stories but also not beholden to corporate money.

Things seem to be getting worse at present, but as long as we maintain our democracy – one person, one vote – then we stand a chance of driving change for the better.  I haven’t been especially politically active to date, but I’m thinking it might be time to change that, to raise my voice and help to build a chorus demanding a nation in which Americans are truly free.  Not just free from foreign invasion and government incursion into daily lives, but free from the anxiety of not knowing where the next rent payment will come from, free from choosing between food and essential medical care, free from living from paycheck to paycheck at age 60 and doubting if retirement will ever be a possibility.

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2017 weather summary

In keeping with my dad’s tradition of publishing an annual weather summary, I thought it would be worthwhile to say a few words about 2017.  Here are the data:

In some ways, 2017 was an “average” year – in terms of overall temperature, length of growing season, total number of days with measurable rainfall.  However, looking at seasons separately, some anomalous patterns emerge – and these are the same patterns predicted to be the “new normal” for our region by climate change models.

  • While the whole year averaged out to normal temperature, May-Sept averaged 1.9 degrees above normal and the cooler months (Jan-April, Oct-Dec) averaged 1.2 degrees below normal.  2017 had a very hot summer, parts of two cold winters, and near-average temperatures for spring and fall.
  • Rainfall, at 120% of normal, was a bit above average, driven primarily by an extraordinarily wet February and March.  Breaking that down by season, we had 135% of average rainfall during the wet season but only 69% of average from May-September.  Not bad for seed farming, but coupled with low humidity and dry thunderstorms in the Cascades we had one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory.

Climate change models generally predict an overall increase in rainfall though with drier summers and a slight increase in temperature with higher summer highs and more winter extremes.  Assuming they’re correct, then 2017 may have been a typical year in a new reality.  Can we deal with it?  This was not a bad year all told, though it is not so much the new average as the new extremes (droughts, floods, heat waves) that will drive changes in ecology and agriculture – and we won’t know what those extremes will be until they arrive.

A few of 2017′s weather patterns deserve special mention:

  • From February through April it rained on 74% of days.  If we subtract out one seven-day rain-free window from March 30-April 5, that increases to 80%.  At Wild Garden we managed to plant out some early brassicas and spinach in that one window, but everything else had to wait until May.  Despite the delay, it was a great year for lettuce and many other crops.
  • The heat wave from July 30 through August 4 topped out at 104.3 degrees, which is the highest my station has recorded since my records began in 2008 (though it has been in three different locations so the comparison is not perfect).  Later in August and September we had many days of forest fire smoke, which actually helped to moderate high temperatures somewhat.  We had 20 days above 90 degrees, which is the highest so far in my records.
  • We had 11 consecutive days of 100% sunshine – no morning fog, no rain, minimal high clouds – from December 4-14.  I can’t say exactly how unusual that is, but the phenomenon that produced it (persistent high pressure, near record-low atmospheric moisture) also created the devastating wildfires in southern California.  Quite possibly connected to climate change, though of course there is no way to draw conclusions from one event.
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Sustainable Religion and a Society in Crisis

Note: “Sustainable Religion” is the last installment of my “On Sustainability” series, published in late 2014 and early 2015.  “A Society in Crisis” below is a current writing.  They are thematically intertwined.

Sustainable Religion (2-9-2015)

In writing about sustainable energy, agriculture, economy, and population, I have laid out some of the many ways in which our current ways of being are unsustainable and will lead to crisis, and I have attempted to suggest constructive choices that will bring us closer to sustainability.  So far, however, I have not attempted to address why it is that those choices are being ignored; why, that is, we collectively choose short term comfort and economic gains over longer-term survival and stability.  These choices arise from our sense of identity, and in particular from beliefs about who exactly we are as humans and what our purpose is on this planet.  As there are no definitive answers to these questions, we have left behind the realms of science and fact and entered the realm of religion.

Religion means many things to different people.  In its strictest sense, it refers to codified systems of spiritual belief and practice.  However, each person must inevitably come to a sense of identity, regardless of whether she subscribes to a formal “religion.”  For the purposes of this discussion, I will define “religion” as a system of beliefs or vision of reality that seeks to answer the following three questions:

  1. Who are we?
  2. Why are we here?
  3. Why do bad things happen?

It is important here to note that a concept of “God”, or even a concept of a supernatural force, is not required to answer these questions.  It may seem strange that I choose to lump secular philosophies in with religion, but I hold that these philosophies ultimately serve the same purpose in terms of helping believers make sense of, and choose to interact with, the world we inhabit.

Ignoring a great many traditions that do not fit this mold, I find it useful to divide answers to these questions into three main groups:  Earth-based religions, major monotheistic religions (e.g. Islam, Judaism, Christianity), and beliefs rooted in modern technology.  I will call these groups, respectively, Earth, God, and Progress.

In examining the table above, keep in mind that sustainability refers to the ability of human beings on planet Earth to live in a way that can be sustained indefinitely.  Not surprisingly, sustainable societies tend to embrace religious beliefs that support such a lifestyle, while religions in unsustainable societies are compatible with unsustainable actions.  To clarify this, I need to add three concepts to the three religious categories and three questions.  These concepts are:

  1. The Shape of Time
  2. Deep Time
  3. The Domain of the Sacred

I realize that these sound like titles of a fantasy trilogy, but bear with me…

The Shape of Time

Modern industrial society views time as a linear thing.  We create timelines in our history books.  We see the past stretching behind us as a series of discrete events, and expect the same in the future.  Our own lives follow a line from birth through adolescence, adulthood, aging, and death.  Secular humanists view life as a one-time journey with no experience after death.  Those subscribing to monotheistic religions view life as a one-time journey beginning with the creation of our soul and ending with an eternal afterlife.  Those who believe in reincarnation often simply extend the line, with souls growing and evolving across multiple lifetimes to an ultimate state of wholeness or fulfillment.

The concept of circular time is almost foreign to us, yet it was quite common in preliterate societies.  In a circular view of time, the present moment will return again and again in the future, with the endless turning of moon cycles, seasons, natural patterns, generations, and human lives.  A mother with a newborn baby in a tipi next to a fire on a cold winter night imagines her daughter someday having the same experience, and her granddaughter, and so on down through the generations.  To someone accustomed to linear time, this can seem depressing, as if nothing ever changes, but to one accustomed to a circular view, each time around the cycles adds a level of richness, with each summer solstice bringing back memories and stories of previous summer solstices and adding one more memory, one more story to the experience of that particular time.

It may be the development of writing and literature that spurred the transition from time-as-circular to time-as-linear.  There is a tendency, when recording events, to record what is different rather than what is recurring.  Gradually we came to focus on these discrete events and all but ignore the recurring cycles.  In recent centuries, advancements in technology have made our lives much different from our parents’ lives and even further removed from older generations.  We cannot imagine technology moving backward, and this sense of progress overwhelms the experience of natural cycles.

Perceiving time as linear does not automatically lead to unsustainability, but it does tip the dice in that direction.  In circular time, cyclical rituals take on great importance.  If we follow ancestral traditions of honoring the summer solstice in an ancient grove, we will be loath to cut down trees in the grove, to accept climate change that might cause the trees to die, or to allow our population to grow such that cutting the trees becomes unavoidable.  In linear time, we are freed from the concern that a future time will be unable to replicate the present.  Instead, we can blindly project trends, accepting progress as a given and assuming that if our lives are easier than our parents’, our children’s lives will be even easier.  If a forest is lost, we can justify it by saying that a city was built.  In so doing, we fail to attribute significance to the loss and depletion of parts of the natural world that are essential to our long-term survival.  If we don’t have an answer now, well technology keeps improving so they’re bound to think of something…

Deep Time

I have heard it said that burning coal is sustainable because we have enough coal to last at least two centuries at current consumption rates.  Similar statements abound with regard to economic growth, nuclear waste, and topsoil loss, to name a few.  When we think beyond the moment, we think only of our own later years, our children’s lives, and at most our grandchildren’s lives.  The past fades away in a similar fashion; we know our parents’ world, we can imagine our grandparents’ world from stories, and beyond that history becomes purely academic.

Sustainable societies, in general, look further back and ahead.  Some Native American tribes famously considered the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation.  Stories from the distant past teach valuable lessons, and any unsustainable decisions (and their consequences) are passed down in stories lest they be repeated.

Modern investigations in geology and evolution have opened our eyes to deep time, to ice ages experienced by prehistoric tribes, to the almost immeasurably long history of the planet before humans arrived.  This knowledge could be incorporated into religion: preparing future generations for a return to ice, seeking to maintain the human species across millions of years and Earth changes, creating stories of the distant past and future that play into our psyche.

So far, though, the opposite has happened.  As we have become aware of the true depth of time, our focus – the range of time that matters to our decision-making – has become ever shorter.  We see ourselves as the pinnacle of evolution, about to make the next great leap into artificial intelligence, space travel, immortality, etc.  We forget about our continuing dependence on the natural cycles of our planet, and we do not look ahead to ensure that those cycles will continue to sustain us.

The Domain of the Sacred

When I was a child, I was not given a religious doctrine.  My parents believed in a loving Presence, Source, what some would call God, but we did not go to church or practice regular rituals.  Instead, I explored.  I found small creeks and rerouted the waters, creating falls, rapids, and sweeping curves.  I learned the plants of the rock outcrops, identified trees in all seasons, and observed the birds through their migrations by sight and song.  I climbed trees to watch the sun rise and set, stuck my nose deep in fresh moss to smell the first green of spring, and chased fireflies on warm summer evenings.  I looked forward each year to the call of the Whippoorwill, the night song of the Ovenbird, the midwinter mating hoot of the Great Horned Owl.

As I learned and explored, using my senses as my guide, I also began to feel places in the natural world.  Whenever I would return to an area, I would feel an amalgamation of my memories from previous experiences in that place and sometimes….something else.  Something outside myself.  The existence, I felt, of consciousness in trees, in hidden valleys, in towering cliffs.  It was never so clear that I could have a conversation, yet it felt unassailably real.  These places, to me, became sacred.

My early immersion in nature was my choice, but in older, simpler, less technological societies this level of immersion in nature was commonplace.   I am not at all surprised that humans came to honor sacred trees, sacred groves, and sacred mountains.  The domain of the sacred was largely or wholly of this world.  As societies become more “domesticated,” with people spending their lives on farms or in towns and cities, deep immersion in nature became rarer, and nature became in some regards an adversary to be conquered.  In these times and places, the dominant religions placed the domain of the sacred beyond Earth: God or Allah in heaven, angels and demons in a non-physical afterlife inhabited by immortal souls.  Modern secular movements question the existence of the sacred entirely, or define the domain of the sacred as confined to humanity.

I cannot reasonably make the claim that one of these views is correct, that there is or is not a God in heaven or a conscious awareness in the forest.  I will, however, make the claim that including the Earth within the domain of the sacred goes a long way toward motivating sustainable action.  We are much less likely to clearcut a sacred grove than a timber investment property, and we are saddened by the decline or extinction of species that played roles in our sacred experience.  To this end, I would encourage anyone to spend time in nature simply observing and experiencing.  Not walking trails for exercise or skiing challenging routes, but letting your senses be your guide, stopping to peer into ephemeral flowers, observing iridescent native bees, catching a scent on the breeze, feeling the texture of the oak bark, listening to the songs of the warblers and grosbeaks establishing territories.  Even more, I would encourage those of you with young children to take the kids outside.  They might be bored at first away from their digital games and TV stimulation, but they will discover an immeasurable richness.

The Religion of Progress

Within the last two centuries, in concert with the explosion of technological innovation, a set of beliefs has evolved that emphasizes linear time, short-sighted visions of the future, and an absence of anything sacred within the Earth.  This set of beliefs also provides alternate answers to the three core mysteries (see table above) that are, to many people, at least as satisfying as the answers provided by conventional religions.  Because no deity is invoked, its billions of believers would not call it a religion, but it occupies the same place within the psyche and guides our collective decisions with regard to sustainability, among other things.  With a tip of the hat to author and blogger John Michael Greer, I will call it the religion of Progress.

Belief in Progress is widespread among atheists and traditional religious folk alike, and its alternative answers to the mysteries of our existence probably make it psychologically easier to abandon God-based or Earth-based religions now than in the past.  In general, devout Progress-ites believe the following:

  • The technological advancement of the past two centuries marks a permanent turning point in human history.
  • Technological improvement is the key to health and quality of life, and these things will continue to improve over time.
  • Impending crises (e.g. climate change, population growth, fossil fuel depletion) are not causes for concern but rather priorities for new technological solutions.  “They’ll think of something.”
  • Progress will continue indefinitely.  There is no “good enough” endpoint in sight.
  • Due to globalization and modern technology we are fundamentally different than past human civilizations and need not concern ourselves with the lessons of history.  “It’s different this time.”

Contrary to believers’ ideas, progress of any form is inevitably a temporary phenomenon, a transition from one stable state to another.  A new discovery spurs a wave of research, and a period of rapid change ensues until all of the useful applications of the discovery have been considered and adopted.  This has been going on throughout human history, from harnessing fire up through the information age.  Progress in this sense does not preclude sustainability, so long as necessary resources are sufficient to sustain to the new technologies indefinitely.

The problem is not so much with progress itself as with the religion of Progress which permeates so much of modern culture.  It is taboo to focus too much on the downsides of a new technology or to question whether adopting it is beneficial over the long term. It is tempting to extrapolate discoveries in a lab (e.g. algae producing fuel, bacteria producing hydrogen) to global scale solutions without asking important questions about feasibility, resource availability, energy balances, and environmental impacts.

Believers in Progress are not entirely unaware of the risks we face as we approach the planet’s carrying capacity and deplete essential resources.  There are two camps of Progress-ites: those who believe we will solve the most pressing problems  and spread out into the galaxy and those who believe we will crash and burn with a few survivors left to rebuild from the ashes.  We either keep moving up or we go off a cliff, fall to the bottom, and eventually start climbing again.

Level, Not Up!

There is a third option available to us, though it is rarely mentioned.  We can aim to sustain ourselves using the resources available to us, choosing to cut back rather than count on some new as-yet-undiscovered technology to save us from the resource shortages we have created.  To do this, we need to choose to stabilize or even use less despite the option of more.  This is anathema to the religion of Progress, and I think it is safe to say that the religion of Progress has outlived its time.  We are leaving the age of growth and entering the age of limits, and we have the option of understanding these limits (in energy, resources, and resilience) and living within them or ignoring the limits and either crashing when we hit them face-first or else finding a last-minute technological fix that only succeeds in raising the limit and postponing the crisis.  We need to let go of “more” and think instead of “enough.”  Enough food to be healthy.  Enough space to live our lives comfortably.  Enough stuff that we can pursue our passions without filling storage units and unused rooms with unneeded items.  Many of us need to accept that enough is less than we’re used to and may require some sacrifice.

If we are to let go of our need for more, we will need to once again find meaning in a world where change moves more slowly, where our grandchildren’s lives are not so different from our own.  I think it is wise to look to sustainable societies of the past, refocusing on the cycles of nature and the cycles of our lives, telling stories that connect us to deeper time, and exploring the planet with our senses until our very world, not something “out there,” feels sacred to us and worthy of our full energy.  There may be other, entirely different approaches to finding meaning in a world where more is not better, but this is my way.  I have hope.


A Society in Crisis (1-29-2017)

I never published my last installment – “Sustainable Religion” – two years ago, as it felt somehow unfinished.  Now, as I sit down to reflect on current events, the words reflect my sentiments.  Yet there is more to be added, in an attempt to understand current events through the lens of the religion of Progress and the universal longing for a sense of meaning and purpose.

First, some observations on the state of our nation, which I hold to be factual (though many would argue):

  • Since 2000, wage growth has been stagnant or negative for the lower 50% of earners and strongly positive for the upper 20% or so.
  • For those with stagnant or declining incomes, new technology (especially in the medical field) is increasingly unaffordable.
  • Fossil fuels continue to provide the vast majority of humankind’s energy needs.
  • Climate change is accelerating in response to continued growth in carbon emissions, leading to increased mitigation expenses and human migrations.
  • Levels of anger and frustration are increasing rapidly.
  • Hate crimes, scapegoating, stereotyping, and internet attacks are all on the rise, as outlets for this anger and frustration.

In short, two things are happening:

  1. Despite continued technological innovation, progress – as measured by standard of living, economic growth, and financial stability – is slowing as we approach the hard physical limits of Earth’s carrying capacity.
  2. As growth and progress slow globally, the upper classes are seeing historical gains continue while the middle and lower classes see stagnation and decline.

This is a recipe for mass discontent, even revolution, and I am concerned – to say the least – about the direction our nation and world are headed.  The Bush and Obama years were a time of pretense, of believing that growth was still happening, or a return to growth and progress was just around the corner once we got over a temporary hump – all of this occurring while well-connected institutions like higher education and health care continued double-digit price increases despite slow or stagnant wage growth.  Trump, despite all of his failings and inconsistencies, won the presidency by admitting that progress had stopped while his opponents kept up the pretense.  He assembled a coalition of those who had suffered the most in the past decade, squeezed by layoffs, pay cuts, and ever-rising costs.  He pledged to “make America great again.”  He has ushered in an era when truth itself is vulnerable to attack, when facts and “alternative facts” compete for airtime.

For believers in the religion of Progress – and I think it’s safe to say that includes the vast majority of Americans regardless of their declared beliefs – the notion of progress is closely tied to a sense of meaning and purpose.  We don’t, as societies of pagans and Native Americans, find meaning in the cycles of the seasons and human lives, celebrating solstices and harvests.  Nor do we, as devout farmers and factory workers of a century past, find meaning in a simple life well lived in the hope of a joyful hereafter.  Instead, we find meaning in the idea that our lives will improve, that we can send our children to top-rated colleges, own a house full of the latest technology, watch astronauts land on the moon and then Mars, track our investments as they gain value, retire to a comfortable life of travel and hobbies, and envision our children in a world where disease and perhaps even aging and death are relics of the past.  Our belief in this vision of the future is so strong that we feel entitled to it – and lost, angry, frustrated when reality deviates from our ideal.

This is the great cognitive dissonance of our time.  After a century of unchecked progress, we have come to believe in it, but our lives no longer reflect our belief.  Instead we see jobs disappearing, rows of empty houses, retirement savings emptied or nonexistent, credit cards maxed out, and new medical breakthroughs and drugs that offer survival at the cost of bankruptcy.  We are hesitant to blame the wealthy – the fact that the dream of progress is still real for them serves not to foment resentment but rather to chart a blueprint for the rest of society.  The fact that the game is zero-sum – that excess resources claimed by some must of necessity be taken from others – has not yet entered our collective consciousness; we still believe that if only we could bring back the economic growth of the 1980s and 1990s, the dream would return for everyone.

So far as I can tell, Trump’s mission – in addition to simply stoking his very large ego – is to revive economic growth and improve the lot of the lower and middle classes without any redistribution of wealth from the top to the bottom.  Anything that stands in the way of short-term economic growth – including environmental regulations, climate change action, refugee resettlement – is suspect.  The anger and frustration of unfulfilled entitlement needs an outlet, and so he has painted targets on illegal immigrants, on environmental activists, on social safety nets.  Most objective analyses show that these issues are not actually dragging down our economy and that targeting them will only cause suffering both now and in the future, but we are dealing in the emotional realms of belief and meaning, where facts matter less than blind faith and assertions.

We need to survive Trump’s chaos – ideally as an intact nation – and to do so we need to collectively recognize two things:

  1. We are not entitled to indefinite progress.  So long as we remain members of the religion of Progress, we will experience increasing cognitive dissonance, anger, and frustration.  We need to open ourselves to finding meaning, purpose, and happiness in the world as it is – a world where we are born, grow old, and die; a world where we celebrate the cycles of time and renewal, a world where we think ahead to the seventh generation and imagine their lives more or less like our own.  That’s not to say we might not discover a warp drive at some point and pay a visit to Alpha Centauri, but our vision of a positive future need not depend on it.
  2. As progress slows, resource distribution is a zero-sum game.  If progress stops on a global scale, it must stop for everyone, not just the poor and the middle class.  At least some of the anger floating around this nation needs to be directed upward, to question the private jets, the yachts, the mansions, the second and third homes.   We cannot idolize the rich and demonize the poor and disenfranchised and hope to improve our lives.

How can we do these things?  The first is a matter of personal growth, of grieving a belief that no longer matches reality and finding – through community and exploration –worldviews that better match reality.  This will take time, but it will happen: no one can hold a belief in the face of contrary evidence forever.  The second will be more difficult.  Historically, wealth inequality has been addressed by revolution and war, but I am not a fighter nor do I wish to see this happen.  I prefer civil disobedience.  We can create equitable economies in the shadow of the old, growing them until the profit streams dry up and multinational corporations collapse under their own weight.  As HMOs and hospitals drive the cost of care and insurance out of reach, local doctors are opening private practices  – “direct primary care” – that cut out the middlemen and still support themselves while offering care at a fraction of the cost.  More food is beginning to move from local farms to local tables without passing through the chain of distributors of and supermarkets.  More solar panels are appearing on rooftops, bypassing coal mining, gas drilling, and electricity transmission.  The movement toward community-level economies is growing slowly, but I believe it will continue to gain steam as more and more essential services are priced out of reach.   I still have hope.

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Trump: Right problem, wrong solutions


I am still struggling to come to terms with Trump’s election last week.  There is a part of me that would like to at least give him a chance to break the economic and political status quo, having been elected with a mandate to do so.  There is another, perhaps more intelligent, part of me that sees him as the ultimate actor, honed by business and reality TV, pretending to overturn the status quo while carefully avoiding the roots of the problem.

As I see it, the majority of the problems facing our country today – wage stagnation, spiraling costs of education and health care, increasing public and private indebtedness, declining quality and durability of goods, decaying infrastructure, increasing homelessness and joblessness, among others – can be traced to one simple reality.  In short, the real economy of goods and services has stopped growing at a meaningful rate.  This has many causes, but it can ultimately be traced back to resource limits, to the fact that human population is approaching (and probably exceeding, over the longer term) our planet’s carrying capacity.  It simply is not possible to continue producing more cars, refining more oil, allowing everyone to purchase bigger houses on more land.  These limits alone could be dealt with; it is perfectly possible for humanity to meet its needs and have an acceptable standard of living in a steady-state economy.

The major problem, or at least the one we can actually address, is that the upper class of society – the top 20% or so – continues to believe in economic growth and continues to see rising incomes.  The “trickle down” policies that supported increased wealth for the upper class on the basis that it would create rising incomes for everyone only work when the economy is growing.  When the economy is stagnant or growing very slowly, as is true now and will be true for much of my lifetime as we face hard limits to growth, then the game becomes zero-sum.  Increased wealth for the upper class means decreased wealth and loss of financial security for the middle and lower classes.

Examples of this zero-sum game abound, but I will list a few of the more obvious ones:

  • Hospitals, medical professionals, and pharmaceutical companies continue to increase their rates well above the rate of inflation, knowing full well that most of their patients cannot afford these rate increases or the resulting hikes in insurance premiums.
  • Universities continue to increase tuition at similar rates, providing both increased compensation and more jobs in their high-paying administrative roles.
  • As investment returns decline (due to a stagnating economy), institutions dependent on endowments maintain their wages and wage growth by charging higher fees to students and clients.
  • Governments borrow from future generations’ Social Security and general funds to cover exorbitant medical costs for retirees.
  • Quality of goods is gradually declining, so even if unit costs remain stable relative to inflation, overall costs increase as appliances, electronics, and household items must be replaced more frequently.

Wages and financial security have been declining for most Americans for some time, but until this last election the political class managed to avoid the issue, focusing instead on distracting Americans with the traditional right vs. left platforms – the wrong problems.  Ignorance is no longer possible, as a growing, angry populist movement is quickly becoming fed up with a government that fails to serve them.  Bernie Sanders arose out of that movement, and so, most unfortunately, did the president-elect Donald Trump.  I’m not sure if Bernie could have defeated Trump, or if he really intended to work toward the right solutions.  I’m sure, however, that Trump has none of the right solutions in mind.

If the problem is growing economic inequality and insecurity in a stagnant economy, here are some of the wrong solutions:

  • Blame illegal immigrants.  Illegal immigrants are not rapists, at least not any more than too many white men are rapists.  They are people in this country looking for a better life.  They are only here because the leaders of our zero-sum economic game have seen a benefit in employing labor at below minimum wage to enrich the upper classes, and the government has turned a blind eye to the practice.  While it is true that the policy of employing illegal immigrants at illegal wages is driving wages down and putting American citizens out of work, the immigrants themselves are not to blame.  If we change the policies allowing corporations to employ illegal workers without risk of prosecution, then the under-the-table jobs will dry up, the flow of illegal immigrants looking for a better life will decrease, and those already here will either seek citizenship to qualify for employment or else return to their countries of origin with whatever resources they have accumulated so far.  This can be done with compassion for the individuals affected, to be sure that true refugees and asylum-seekers are given assistance to become citizens and to make it clear that policies, rather than people living in poverty, are to blame.


  • Focus on “radical Islamic terrorism.”  Whatever name we choose to give it, terrorist acts carried out by followers of Islam are a problem, borne out of decades of intervention and “collateral damage” in the homeland of Islam and a religious doctrine that justifies martyrdom and religious violence – no different than some past crusades of Christianity.  The size of this problem is, however, very small: so small as to be a distraction from the real economic problem, though Trump has attempted to tie them together in his rhetoric.  The number of Americans killed in terrorist acts – 9/11 included – pales in comparison to the number of Americans who die each year because they cannot afford medical care, or who commit suicide because they cannot see hope in their futures after struggling for years without getting ahead or even getting out of debt.   The only long-term solution to Islamic terrorism is to cease our interventions in the Middle East for a generation or so while maintaining vigilance against radicalized individuals.  This can be done without alienating Muslims, the vast majority of whom are peaceful, compassionate individuals.  Indeed, the more we as a society accept Islam, the less likely Muslim youth will be to become radicalized, and the more likely the Muslim community will report budding terrorists within their ranks.

All of the right solutions begin with a simple premise.  In a zero-sum game, there is a loser for every winner.  Thus in order to stop the immiseration of the lower and middle classes, we must stop the enrichment of the upper class.  That alone will not be enough, however, as the current economic status of the majority of Americans is tenuous at best.  To really bring wealth back to the working class, we must – gasp – be willing to reduce the wealth of the upper classes.  That means lower returns for stockholders, lower bonuses for CEOs, and lower pay for hospital and university administrators. 

There are ways to accomplish this that would seem anti-capitalist – capping incomes, say, or imposing government limits on bonuses and profits.  There are also ways that would work within a free-market system.  As an example, an aspiring doctor must now obtain a lengthy education incurring deep debt, then seek employment with an accredited hospital system that negotiates arbitrary and ever-increasing rates with very little transparency or public accounting.  A president could offer debt relief to young doctors who set up a private practice with affordable rates.  Or intellectual property laws could be changed such that pharmaceutical patents expire sooner, encouraging competition.  Or anti-trust laws could be enforced to break up mega-corporations formed from endless mergers, encouraging greater competition and lower prices.  Any number of solutions are possible, and I really don’t know which would be the best.  That is a matter for public discourse and debate. 

From what I’ve seen so far of the Trump administration, I don’t expect to see any such discussion.  Goldman Sachs is one of the world’s largest investment banks, staffed by millionaires who have overseen and benefited from increasing inequality.  Bill Clinton chose a former Goldman Sachs executive as his treasury secretary.  So did George W. Bush.  Obama picked his chief of staff from the company.  So far, Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, is a Goldman Sachs alumnus, and another former company executive is one of two finalists for his treasury secretary.  Trump may be proselytizing to the proletariat about better lives, but he follows in the footsteps of his predecessors on both sides of the aisle when it comes to endorsing the financial system that will continue to enrich the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.  (To be fair, I expected the same financial policy from Hillary, albeit without the scapegoating and hatemongering.)

This could be a long four years, and I fear for those who have been scapegoated by Trump and his supporters, in their wrongheaded hope for a better future.  My only solace is that perhaps we, as a nation, will see through his empty promises and misdirected anger during that time.  Perhaps next time we choose a leader, we will find someone who offers real solutions, who is willing to go against the interests of big corporations, big banks, and wealthy investors and offer solutions that work within a steady-state economy to increase equality and promote financial security for members of all classes.


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An open letter to Donald Trump

Dear Mr. Trump,

Congratulations on your election.  You certainly surprised me and a great many others here on the west coast.  Normally I am not one to write to leadership, as it seems that positions are deeply entrenched.  You, however, have shown a willingness to modify your positions in response to your constituency.  As a repeal/revamp of the Affordable Care Act is at the top of your priority list, I thought I would offer my perspectives.

First, though, I would ask that you make a public effort to mend the rifts caused by one of the most negative campaigns in history.  Among your supporters there are those who are openly and angrily racist, white supremacist, homophobic, and transphobic.  These people are a small minority of American citizens, but they have felt emboldened by your election to bring their hate into the public sphere.  On behalf of my friends who are black, Muslim, gay, and transgender, I ask that you publicly denounce these people and their behavior.  For better or worse, the haters mostly gave you their votes, but you do not need their support to govern.  Every American has a right to feel safe in this country, and too many have been living in fear since last Tuesday.

With regard to health care, here is my proposal:

  1.  Keep the private insurance companies, at least for now.  The federal government is nearly collapsing under its own weight, and the added bureaucracy involved in federal single-payer health insurance may well be untenable.  I feel that single-payer insurance would be a positive step but that it is best administered at the state level.
  2. Change the individual mandate to an individual incentive, e.g. an additional tax deduction for insured taxpayers rather than a tax penalty.  People like carrots better than sticks, and the effect would be the same in encouraging healthy people to carry insurance.
  3. Standardize risk pooling.  Create a set of criteria that insurance companies may use to set premiums (e.g. age, tobacco use, local cost of care, chosen coverage/deductibles), and require insurance companies to charge equal premiums for equal plans to everyone.  No more special “large group” employer and institution plans with lower premiums and higher benefits.   My car insurance is the same whether I work for Google or run my own farm.  Health insurance ought to work the same way.
  4. Standardize costs of care.  An MRI has a specific cost in terms of labor, equipment, and overhead, and this is the same regardless of the patient.  So an MRI ought to cost, say, $700 for everyone, NOT (as is currently the case) $600 for in-network insurance companies, $900 for out-of-network insurance companies, and $1200 for patients paying out-of-pocket.  With cost standardization, we could greatly increase transparency while eliminating the in-network/out-of-network distinction and allowing (as you have suggested) for insurance companies to provide nationwide coverage and compete across state lines.

Thanks, and best of luck in governing our divided nation.


Mark Luterra

Corvallis, Oregon

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Thoughts on a worrisome election

Well…this is strange. I never thought I would say the words “President Trump,” and yet it looks like we, as a nation, just made that happen. Never mind that more votes were actually cast for Clinton, which is a reminder that the Electoral College really needs to go away.

I had a fair bit invested in this election, and it feels like my team just lost. Not that I really love Hillary that much. The divides are striking, men vs. women, urban vs. rural, college educated vs. not.

My childhood county of Renville, usually a fairly even partisan split, elected Trump with a 2/3 majority. These are good people. People who cared for my dad during his last days. People who sang and played instruments and studied and competed alongside me in high school and who now have little ones of their own. People who employ illegal immigrants and work alongside them in the fields, who teach English to little Mexican kids.

These good people, and millions like them across the nation, just elected a man who promises to build a wall on the border, to deport all illegal immigrants. A man who is on film talking about grabbing a woman “by the pussy” and who promises to imprison his opponent. A man who says little about love and compassion and caring for one another and much about anger and fear and divisiveness.

There are parts of Trump’s philosophy that I can agree with. If he is to be believed, he will lead us away from our budding brinkmanship with Russia and perhaps free the Syrian conflict from a US-Russian proxy war which is threatening to extend it indefinitely. He will push back against free trade agreements and perhaps lead us away from our current situation where nearly everything we buy is made in China, toward a revitalization of US manufacturing. He might – just might – do something about the ever-rising income inequality that is fomenting economic insecurity and frustration among a majority of Americans. He might begin to tip the balance of power away from multinational corporations and back toward workers and communities.

Unfortunately, I don’t really believe any of these things will happen. Trump is, after all, an extremely wealthy CEO of a multinational corporation. He benefits directly from globalization and the very policies that have gradually immiserated his constituency. He is clever, extroverted, with a knack for saying the right words honed over years of business dealings and reality television. Exactly why underemployed, struggling working class families believe that a wealthy, manipulative CEO is “their man” confuses me to no end, though it is a testament to his power of persuasion.

We need change in this country. We need to bring down the cost of healthcare and education – there is no justifiable reason short of greed and profits why these expenses are rising at double or triple the rate of wage growth. We need to continue building a renewable energy grid that will survive the depletion of oil, natural gas, and eventually coal. We need to recognize that climate change is real (almost every summer is among the hottest on record at this point) and take real steps to address it. We need to overcome our fear of each other and our polarization and recognize that we all want the same things – fair pay for a day’s work, love of friends and family, acceptance within our community and society, enough cash on hand to cover emergencies and retire some day. We need to work together – by whatever means we choose – to ensure that these simple things are within reach of everyone and not denied to those of a particular race, economic class, religion, immigration status, or even to those who have experienced personal hardship or mental health challenges beyond their control.

So…here we are, with a President Trump. He is an outsider, new to politics, riding on a wave of frustration with the gridlocked status quo. He is, I believe, quite malleable. He has a history of changing political parties, changing positions on issues, and saying whatever brings him popularity. As much as I dislike him personally, I think that he will act upon the will of the people if it brings him success and a place in history books. I ask of you, good people of Renville County and everywhere in rural America: now that you have elected this man, let us set aside our anger and divisiveness and remember our love for family, for community, for society. Let us work together to force President Trump to deliver on his better promises and to set aside his anger, his racism, his willingness to use stereotypes to divide us. Let us begin…

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Tombstone Pass hike

This past Saturday we tried a new trail – setting off from Tombstone Pass on Highway 20.  Between the weather and the wildflowers, we had quite a show…



Final ascent to Iron Mountain summit (5430 ft), in wind and hail at ~40 degrees.

Sunbreak at the top.  It felt like we were on a floating island in the clouds.


Rock layers from the heart of an old volcano.

A midwest-esque stormcloud on our way back to Corvallis.  We missed several thunderstorms on our day away.

Elizabeth’s amazing honey cheesecake, served at our birthday potluck/bonfire after our hike.

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I do not wish to live on Coruscant

Or, why I am not excited about fusion power…


I should preface by saying that I remain unconvinced that controlled fusion energy is possible or, if it proves so, economical.  The last time I read about all of the investment money going into fusion research, however, I found myself wondering whether success would actually be a good thing.


We live in a time when the human race is about to become reacquainted with limits.  Limits to energy, to phosphorus, to water availability, to arable land.  Energy is, above all, the driving factor.  With unlimited energy, we could extract phosphorus from seawater, desalinate billions of gallons and pump it to the deserts, even produce food in giant vats filled with synthetic nutrients.  We could industrialize the shit out of this planet.  We could, in just a few centuries, find ourselves living on Coruscant, the city-planet at the center of the Star Wars universe.  And would we?  You bet.

It would begin with fanfare.  Fusion power would be announced as a grand breakthrough, a gateway to a limitless future.  In desert regions facing water and food shortages, we would install desalination plants and synthetic food factories.  Success!  Millions of lives saved, thanks to fusion.  Within one generation, we would pass a point of no return.  From that point on we would be incapable of sustaining human civilization with energy from the Sun or fossil fuels.  As synthetic food became cheaper and more refined, it would be accepted and farming would become quaint and old-fashioned – an inefficient waste of land and topsoil.  Millions of acres would be restored to prairie and forest, and wildlife would flourish.  For perhaps 100 years the human race would live in an age of abundance.  The human population would boom, doubling to 15 billion, 30 billion, 60 billion over that time.

Then the problems would begin.  Land that was once farmland, then restored, would become subdivisions.  Cities would expand and merge.  As the functioning of the biosphere sputtered and failed, we would replace natural functions with synthetic ones.  Imagine huge machines the size of small towns consuming terawatts of electricity, filtering carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and splitting it into oxygen and carbon, returning the oxygen to the air and feeding pure carbon into synthetic food factories.  Remaining natural areas would be overrun with tourists, and wilderness would become a concept of the past.  As energy use grew exponentially, the sheer heat output would warm the planet even with no greenhouse effect, and we would be forced to dim the sun, spewing reflective smoke into the high atmosphere, to keep the planet cool.  As land grew scarce, cities would expand upward, leading to a world in which our great-great-grandchildren lived and died under artificial light, eating artificial food, and breathing artificial air.

It is easy to imagine a world in which we replace dirty oil and coal with clean fusion, in which energy is abundant and everyone can live in a five-bedroom house with digital controls and flat-screen TVs in every room.  Unlimited energy could get us there.  It is also true, however, that with current levels of available energy we could provide the same level of abundance – if only we had one billion humans rather than 7 billion.  We, as a species, have not shown an ability to match our population with our resources to maintain abundance.  Instead, we reproduce to the point of scarcity, then depend on technology to push the limits higher, restore abundance, and keep growing.

My generation is already facing scarcity.  Oil production has peaked, and we are living in a time when available energy per capita is decreasing.  Wind and solar are growing exponentially, but it seems likely that this will not keep pace with fossil fuel depletion in a world with a growing population.  Wallets will grow lighter and bellies will be empty.  Like most, I would love to see fusion arrive on the scene and evaporate these limits.  But when I project this forward, I can only see a world that I would not wish to live in.

Homo sapiens is not yet ready for fusion power.  Before we harness the power of the stars, we need to build a collective wisdom:  establish a desired human population size and devise incentives to maintain it, abandon our winner-take-all mentality in favor of “gross national happiness” and equitable resource distribution, and accept our responsibilities to the biosphere that has existed for billions of years prior to our arrival and has every right to continue for another billion years or more.  Unless and until that happens, I can only hope that unlimited fusion energy remains a dream for the future, and that my generation continues the tumultuous journey from an age of abundance to an age of limits.


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Midwinter musings

I haven’t posted for too long, thought I might add this message I sent to a friend in Sweden.


Greetings from deep in the woods, on a quiet rainy evening, home alone and watching the fire in our wood stove.  Sipping blackberry mead just bottled, one of eleven batches this year made with some of our 350 lbs of honey from nine beehives.  Six now, after a bear found our apiary in October.  Room to expand again in the spring…

Life continues apace.  Our landlord is reclaiming his house in the woods at the end of March, and Elizabeth and I are buying a home on the edge of town.  I will miss the solitude, but not the driving and car-dependency.  I am still working for Wild Garden Seed, a small organic vegetable seed company.  I do many things, but I most enjoy the engineering aspects – I’m currently working on building an improved seed cleaning machine.  My current plan is to move toward more consulting work in agricultural/renewable energy engineering.

Beyond these woods, much is afoot.  A group of armed men has taken over a bird refuge in eastern Oregon, claiming that the government has no right to own and manage public lands.  A true demagogue is leading in the presidential polls, gaining popularity by proclaiming hatred.  Anxiety and cognitive dissonance grow thick, as our populace tries ever harder to see things as they believe them to be rather than as they are.  The real patterns – the ever-renewing cycles of the seasons, of the moon, of our mother planet, have been too long ignored.

Our supposedly-great nation is beginning to come apart.  We are too young to be united by culture, too reliant on the concept of progress as our aspiration, our highest goal to be pursued with religious zeal.  From the days of manifest destiny, of plowing under the vast prairies, we have built a nation on progress.  Oxen to tractors.  Steam trains to airplanes.  Telephones to television to the internet.  Progress has been the rule, and so progress is ever expected.  The economy must grow, stock prices must rise.  We as a nation do not, and seemingly can not, grasp that progress must be temporary.  Over cycles of deep time we humans must find meaning in the cycles of nature, in our families and communities, in our own personal growth.  On a planet that is finite, any linear or exponential growth cannot continue indefinitely.

Our world is filling up.  Population growth is slowing.  Fossil fuels are dwindling, and renewable energy while expanding cannot support the level of wasteful consumption to which we have grown accustomed.  The economy has nearly stopped growing, but those at the top have found ways to maintain high rates of return at the expense of everyone below them.  The federal deficit has grown beyond possibility of ever being paid off.  Health care costs increase each year, but without any detectable improvement in health.  We averaged around one mass shooting per day in 2015, suicide rates are increasing, 36% of Americans are obese, and we are increasingly overmedicated – legally and illegally – with stimulants, narcotics, antidepressants, and painkillers.  Such are the symptoms of our existential crisis as a nation founded on progress awakens to the reality than all progress must be temporary, and this particular round of progress is coming to an end.

As if on cue, a demagogue has arisen to revive the American Dream, to “Make America Great Again.”  A charismatic personality, overflowing with emotional rhetoric and light on practical solutions, eager to blame any and all problems on minority groups.  A bully, leading those who would feel valuable at the expense of others, who would identify with a mythical American ideal as so many so-called Aryans did once before, before most living memory.  History threatens to repeat itself…

At the same time, there is an awakening underway.  More small farms and smiling faces at the riverfront market each year.  Every year a new crop of gardeners and beekeepers, eager to get their hands dirty and brave the inevitable stings.  Bright eyes of newborn babies, arriving into the lives of loved ones.  Every year more solar panels, more focus on local food systems, on resilience, on building trust and relationships in community.  More people experiencing nature, rediscovering a sense of meaning in cycles and plant and animal consciousness.  My heart is joyful to be a part of this awakening, and I hope to find a larger niche in this unfolding moving forward.  I fear for our country, and were it not for our family here we might be trying to join you in Sweden.  For now, though, I am well, and I aim to focus on the local-scale developments while steering clear of our expanding national craziness.

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Why I’m not voting for Measure 2-89

For readers not from Benton County, Oregon, the hot debate around here at the moment is focused on Ballot Measure 2-89, which would effectively ban all genetically modified organisms within the county.

I know some of the people who wrote the measure and have been campaigning hard for it.  As an organic farmer myself, I want to support them and would have voted for it (despite some misgivings) had they kept the language of an earlier draft limiting the ban to genetically modified food crops.  The measure was intended to strike a blow against corporate agriculture, but as written it would put a stopper on all kinds of unrelated research at Oregon State University and local startup companies.  Furthermore, in my view genetic modification is not really the main problem with industrial agriculture.

I understand genetic engineering better than most, having done it myself for five years as a graduate student.  My goal was to create blue-green algae that could convert sunlight to hydrogen, ultimately allowing us to obtain more of our energy needs from renewable sources.  After a few successes and more than a few disappointments, I came to understand what genetic engineering could and could not do, and I also let go of the mostly-irrational fear of genetic engineering that is so prevalent on the left side of the political spectrum these days.

Genetic engineering is any intentional change to a DNA sequence – insertion, deletion, or modification.  In practice it usually entails inserting a gene from another organism or inactivating a gene already present.  It is a technology and a tool, and like all technologies it can be used to enact positive change or to profit at the expense of natural systems and those less fortunate.  The risks of genetic engineering have everything to do with the genes being changed and nothing to do with the simple act of moving DNA.  A harmless protein in potatoes will not become harmful if it is expressed in corn.  Deleting the gene that causes apples to turn brown (as in the soon-to-be-released Arctic Apples) will not in any way make those apples toxic or less nutritious.  Adding genes that allow rice to produce vitamin A (as in Golden Rice) will not make that rice dangerous, unless so much vitamin A is produced that it becomes toxic.    On the other hand, it is entirely possible to deliberately engineer a more deadly, more virulent flu virus, or to move the genes that produce botulism toxin from bacteria to any desired food crop.  The real risks of genetic engineering arise not from the remote possibility of unexpected negative effects, but rather from its potential exploitation by malicious minds.

Over the course of three billion years, evolution has explored nearly every possible combination of DNA.  Bacteria take up DNA sequences from the environment and try them out, adding them to their own if they prove useful.  Genes and whole genomes duplicate and diversify, taking on new roles.  The idea that we, in our comparatively miniscule tinkerings, could upset the entire system by accident is unfounded.  Genetic engineering is useful for doing things that evolution has had no reason to do, such as designing bacteria that make human insulin, making plants resistant to a synthetic chemical, or creating apples that don’t brown when cut.  When we try to use genetic engineering to improve upon something that evolution has been optimizing for eons, like the efficiency of photosynthesis, we inevitably meet with very limited success and discover that the evolved system is very close to hard physical limits.

One of the first applications of genetic engineering, dating back to 1978, was to produce insulin for diabetics.  The human insulin gene was spliced into none other than E. coli, and after some trial and error the bacteria managed to produce this biomolecule on an industrial scale.  Prior to this time, insulin was tediously extracted from the pancreas of cattle and sheep, and the bacterial route greatly decreased the cost.  Only when genetic engineering was applied to food crops did the concept enter the public eye, and for a certain subset of the population genetic engineering has since come to symbolize all that is wrong with agriculture.

In my view, the major problems with modern industrial agriculture are:

  • Widespread use of toxic chemicals, resulting in loss of pollinator habitats, damage to soil ecosystems, and chronic health problems in humans likely associated with damage to gut microbiota
  • Loss of diversity, both within varieties and in terms of numbers of varieties
  • Failure to close nutrient loops, resulting in runoff (eutrophication, ocean dead zones) and depletion of mined minerals
  • Fossil-fuel dependence on the order of 7 calories input to produce each calorie of food energy, and
  • Corporate control of seeds through utility patents and other means

The problem with banning GMOs as an attack on industrial agriculture is that doing so does nothing to address any of the five factors above and, conversely, it would be entirely possible to practice sustainable agriculture using open-source genetically modified crops.  Genetic engineering to increase nutrition (as in Golden Rice) is one such possibility, as is using genetic modification to overcome a devastating plant disease, as has already occurred with papaya in Hawaii.

The reason that Monsanto and other big-ag companies rolled out GM crops first is simply that they had the most money to invest in an emerging, initially-very-expensive technology.  Not surprisingly, they made genetic changes that improved their profit margins, namely by creating crops resistant to the herbicides they sell.  I don’t like that.  Not one bit.  But that historical fact does not alone make all GMOs bad, nor does it mean that banning GMOs in Benton County will do much to change the way that industrial agriculture works here.

I should note that I’m all for labeling genetically engineered foods – not just as GM but as exactly what they were modified for, e.g. “this product contains corn genetically modified for glyphosate herbicide resistance,” “this product contains wheat genetically modified for drought tolerance,” or “this product contains rice genetically modified to produce vitamin A.”  Such a scheme would help consumers discriminate between beneficial and harmful applications of genetic engineering, while a simple GMO labeling scheme would tend to reinforce vague fears.

I would also stand behind local legislation to reduce pesticide spraying on food crops, to reduce fossil fuel use in agriculture, to increase the proportion of land devoted to food crops (vs. grass seed and Christmas trees), or to generally tip the balance of economics and power away from industrial agriculture and toward small farmers with sustainable practices.  As for Measure 2-89, I can’t vote for it.  I won’t vote against it either, as doing so would be a statement against my values.  To the authors, I say:  I stand with your vision of a local food system.  I stand with your ideals of a world where natural systems have rights.  I wish to work with you going forward to create a more sustainable world, but I can’t support the letter of this law as you wrote it.

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