Wednesday, November 24, 2010

No Time for Lullabies

At this point we’ve covered the core techniques of backyard food gardening, one of the three basic ingredients in the bubbling cauldron of green wizardry. Those core techniques are far from the only things that can usefully be added to the pot, of course, but I don’t propose to go into the other options in any detail.

First, and to my mind the most crucial, is the need for dissensus. It’s impossible to know in advance what particular set of tools and skills will be the one best suited to squeak past the mess taking shape around us – and by this I mean to include both the short-term mess defined by the implosion of America’s debt economy and its overseas equivalents, and the long-term and even more daunting mess defined by the head-on collision between a civilization and technostructure predicated on limitless expansion and the hard limits of a finite planet. Green wizardry, as I’ve already discussed here, is only one option, and even within green wizardry there needs to be plenty of room for different paths, new inventions, local traditions, and a good helping of outright eccentricity.

Those of my readers who took me up on last week’s challenge and sat down with a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species and a tall beverage of choice already have some sense of the importance of variation in evolution; that’s what provides the raw material that gets sorted out by natural selection. There’s no shortage of natural selection piling up for us in the not too distant future, that’s for sure, but it’s up to us to provide the variation. That’s part of what’s behind my recommendation that aspiring green wizards haunt used book stores and go digging for obscure pieces of information, and it’s also part of the reason why I’ve focused almost monomaniacally on a very specific version of backyard food gardening – the version that evolved in the 1970s energy crises – when there are many other options out there. The logic here is straightforward: a pretty fair fraction of green wizards who didn’t grow up during that decade are bound to get irritated by the deliberately annoying Seventies-centric approach, and that irritation will send them looking for other options.

Another important reason, though, was brought home to me by a book that arrived on my doorstep not too long ago. I’m not going to name the author, the publisher, or even the subject matter, because it could have been any of a hundred books; these days they’re as interchangeable, as forgettable, and as inescapable as American politicians at election time. I’m not sure why it was mailed to me, as it came unannounced; I have to assume that since I blog about the crisis of industrial society, and this book claims to offer a solution to that crisis, the author or the publisher’s marketing department decided that I probably ought to know about it.

You already know the kind of book I’m discussing. It begins with several chapters of potted history that combines an overheated version of the mess we’re in – slanted, naturally, toward those aspects of the mess that the proposed solution is supposed to solve – and an equally colorful account of the prehistory of the solution that traces it back to an exotic and currently fashionable source. It goes on to talk about the proposed solution with the kind of overhyped enthusiasm and rose-tinted assumptions more often associated with the press releases of small tech startups that will be bankrupt within the year. It spares a brief chapter or two to mention criticisms directed at the proposed solution in order to dismiss them out of hand, and then finishes up with a vision of the glorious Utopian future that awaits once the Party’s latest five year plan – er, excuse me, once the proposed solution gets the universal acceptance and ample funding the author hopes to attract.

What isn’t in books of this kind is as important, and as worth mentioning, as what is in them. You won’t find any substantive discussion of the limits of the proposed solution – what dimensions of the crisis of industrial civilization it can’t solve, which bioregions or human societies can’t use it effectively, what resource requirements, environmental effect, or economic factors place constraints on its use, and so on. You won’t find any substantive discussion of the downside of the proposed solution – what burdens it will place on already stressed resource supplies, ecosystems, or economies. Equally, you won’t find meaningful comparisons between the proposed solution and other ways of accomplishing the same thing. Since there are always limits, costs, and alternatives, and a reasoned approach to any kind of decision needs to take these three things into account, their exclusion from such books is not exactly a minor point.

Still, there’s another factor left out in the sort of book I’m discussing: there’s nothing the reader is supposed to do in response. Until recently, if you picked up a book that took some current crisis, painted it in the most apocalyptic terms available, then trotted out some solution dolled up in glowing colors for your approbation, you could safely bet any sum you like to name that the final chapters would try to sell the reader on a product to buy, a service to pay for, a movement to join, or something similar. That sort of snake oil sales pitch is as old as the hills of Iowa and twice as corny, but at least it’s relatively straightforward.

The books I have in mind are anything but straightforward. Like the sales pitches just mentioned, they work overtime making whatever crisis concerns their authors look as dire as possible, and gild their proposed solutions with a glitter of infallibility as glorious as anything a carnival pitchman ever claimed for Doctor Fox’s Genuine Arkansas Snake Oil, but they’re not written to sell. It finally occurred to me, while reading the example mentioned earlier in this essay, what their actual purpose is: they’re written to soothe.

This sort of lullaby literature is very popular just now. Shorter pieces humming the same tunes can be found all through what passes for news media in America these days. The New York Times is particularly fond of such things; my adopted kid sister Sharon Astyk neatly eviscerated one example from that source in a recent blog post, but it’s a safe bet that neither the author nor the intended audience of the piece will notice. They are paying attention to something else.

Especially but not only in America, an awareness is spreading through the crawlspaces of society that the current round of troubles might not just be a speedbump on the road to the shiny future our society’s myths promise us. The sense that something has truly, deeply, desperately gone wrong, right down at the core of the world we’ve created for ourselves, has made itself the background to most of the collective conversations that define our culture. The popularity of soothing narratives about the future just now is, if anything, a marker for just how pervasive that background has become; it’s only when fears are inescapable that efforts at mass reassurance find a market.

Still, there’s another dimension to all this, and it bears directly on the Green Wizards project. One of the things that makes our predicament so difficult for so many people to face just now, and especially for so many Americans, is that every available option for the future includes the certainty of massive impoverishment. The five per cent of us who live in the United States have gotten used to living on a quarter of the world’s energy supply and around a third of its raw materials and industrial products. Even if the world wasn’t facing the rapid depletion of its readily accessible fossil fuel reserves, the equally rapid depletion of many other nonrenewable resources essential to the economy, a global climate tipping toward critical instabilities, a dizzying array of local, regional, and global ecological shifts, and the inevitable feedback loops and synergistic effects these changes are going to cause – and of course the world is facing all these things, and will be facing more of them with every passing year – even if these things weren’t happening, the arrangements that provide Americans with so huge a share of the world’s resources are not going to last much longer.

Those arrangements were the product of a particular set of historical conditions. A century ago, those conditions didn’t exist; back then, it was Britain that received a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth, as the beneficiary of an imperial system that directly ruled a quarter of the world’s land surface and also dominated the world’s oceans and, by that fact, most of its international trade. America in those days was a rising power, to be sure, but wasn’t even close to the world’s biggest economy; it had to shelter its industries from the impact of the British colossus by exactly the sort of trade barriers the Chinese are using against us today. (Yes, British economists criticized the US in much the same terms our economists now use to denounce the Chinese; we didn’t listen and neither will they.)

It didn’t take a hundred years for the British empire to be replaced by ours, and it won’t take a hundred years for ours to be replaced by someone else’s. Since we can’t rely on the unusual historical circumstances that allowed Britain to maintain a few shreds of its imperial dignity and some of its privileged economic standing – they were basically able to rent their island out to the American military as an unusually large aircraft carrier conveniently anchored right off the shores of Europe; we don’t have that geopolitical advantage – the aftermath of the American empire is almost certain to be much more like the aftermath of most other empires: economic collapse, massive political dislocations, and a long period of turmoil and contraction until the bottom is reached and recovery can finally start to take shape. The global empire that preceded Britain’s, the Spanish Empire, may provide a more accurate model: that empire imploded in the early nineteenth century in the wake of Britain’s rise to global power, and it wasn’t until the late twentieth century that Spain finally managed to pull itself out of the long nightmare of impoverishment and political chaos that followed.

Again, this is what we would be able to expect if the global economy was entirely based on sustainable resources and the global ecology wasn’t redefining itself in the face of a couple of centuries of fossil fuel-powered abuse. Factor in the impact of energy and resource depletion, climate change, and environmental instability, and the very high likelihood of an increasingly desperate and violent scramble for remaining resources on the way down, and the effects of the end of American empire are likely to be more drastic than anything we’ve seen in the western world since the fall of Rome.

I suspect most Americans these days know this, or at least sense it. These days, when I give a talk on the future to an audience outside the peak oil community, I can begin it like this – “Remember all those scientists a few decades back who warned that if we didn’t make some drastic changes in the very near future, we’d be in deep trouble in the early twenty-first century? Well, guess what.” – and far more often than not, nobody argues. Some of them, at least to judge by the comments and questions I field, are already beginning to try to fit their minds around a future in which nearly all of us are desperately poor by today’s standards; many more are hoping that the worst of it will miss them somehow, or that they’ll be lucky enough to die before it hits – I’ve had people, not all of them elderly, express this latter hope to me in so many words.

Even among those who insist that it won’t happen – those who claim that the center of the Earth really is full of limitless oceans of oil, or that holding hands in a circle and singing “Kum Ba Ya” is a viable strategy for an age of imperial decline and global overshoot, or that the Rapture or the Singularity or 2012 or some other deus ex machina will annihilate history and save them from the future – I have to question how many people actually believe what they claim to believe. I know far too many people who insist the world will end in 2012, for example, who are still putting money into their retirement accounts, and it’s been an open secret for the last decade that the vast majority of people who like to imagine living in a lifeboat ecovillage have not been willing to lift a finger or spend a dime to bring such a project into being.

I’d like to suggest that this is because daydreams about nonexistent lifeboat ecovillages and planet-ending catastrophes two years from now that weren’t actually predicted by the ancient Mayans at all share a common purpose, one that’s also shared by abiotic oil, fusion power, and a dime store’s worth of other lullabies disguised as solutions. Their purpose is to give people something more pleasant to think about than the future that’s breathing down our necks. Yes, planet-ending catastrophes are more pleasant to think about than a couple of centuries of ragged decline, impoverishment, and population loss; if we all get blown to kingdom come in one vast fireball, at least it’s over quickly, and you can probably get some consolation in the few seconds before you’re vaporized by reminding yourself that, after all, it wasn’t your fault.

The irony here, and it’s a rich one, is that potentially workable projects can be turned into lullabies just as effectively as the most dubious daydream. I’m not exactly a fan of the lifeboat ecovillage concept, but it’s always possible that one or more of the handful of voluntary communities that have adopted this role might turn out to have had the right idea all along; it’s the ones that haven’t been built, will never be built, and function primarily as lullaby fodder that are guaranteed to be useless. Equally, some of the other approaches that have become the focus of soothing pronouncements that the solution has been found might actually do some good – and in some cases, quite a bit of good – if they’re treated as projects needing immediate hard work by anyone who wants to see them happen, rather than as props for the fantasy that somebody else is going to do everything that’s necessary.

Green wizardry is vulnerable to exactly the same process. That’s one reason why I don’t intend to present a nice neat all-encompassing plan for saving the world in these essays, or the book for which they form the very rough initial draft. Green wizardry can’t save the world, if by “saving the world” is meant finding some way to allow Americans to keep on living some semblance of a lifestyle that requires a third of the world’s economic activity to support it; but it won’t even accomplish those modest but useful tasks that it could potentially do if it gets treated primarily as raw material for lullabies.

We don’t have time for lullabies. With the United States government openly covering its debts by printing money, food and commodity prices spiking, the number of permanently unemployed people soaring across the industrial world, and China cutting deals with its other major trading partners to price goods and handle exchanges in yuan and local currencies rather than dollars, we face a high risk of serious discontinuities in the relatively near future. That’s why I hope to goad those people already involved in the Green Wizards project to get going; it may be winter here in the northern hemisphere, but that’s a good time to plan those garden beds, order seeds, keep the compost going, and put some tools on the list of holiday presents.

Next week’s post will push the envelope a bit further by talking about the value of some bits of the old appropriate tech toolkit that have been consigned to the fringes. In the meantime, I’d encourage any of my readers who might have been using these posts as lullaby fodder to think again. If you’re going to be desperately poor by today’s standards, and you are, you might as well learn how to handle that with a certain amount of skill, and maybe even a bit of grace. Knowing how to grow some of your own food, keep your home comfortable with minimal energy inputs, and do the other things green wizards can do will help with that; listening to lullabies won’t.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Sincerest Form of Reverence

I’ve commented more than once in these essays about the mismatch between history as it happens and history as it’s finally written down after the fact. Events that seem to pile up on top of one another in the history books are usually experienced, by the people who were there at the time, as widely spaced threads in a fabric woven mostly of the ordinary occurrences of daily life. Even when drastic changes break over a civilization, the people who are affected normally have to spend so much time scrambling to make ends meet that the scale of the transformation becomes evident only in retrospect.

I’ve come to think we’re in the middle of such a process right now. Recent headlines note events that most people would have considered cataclysmic not that long ago. The price of oil is bouncing along above $80 a barrel, the International Energy Agency has now admitted that peak oil happened in 2006, the United States is openly covering its debts by means of the printing press, and agricultural commodity prices have jolted upwards to unprecedented levels under the paired pressures of an increasingly unstable climate and a disintegrating global economic system, just for starters.

If I’d presented a scenario for 2010 ten years ago that included these details, most people who read it would have dismissed me as a wild-eyed prophet of doom. Yet here we are, and most of us in America, at least, are paying more attention to the upcoming holidays than we are to the accelerating dissolution of the only world most of us have known, and the rapid approach of a future that a great many of us will find very unwelcome indeed.

Still, this is normal. The human mind does not readily grasp the perspectives of deep time; it takes a fair amount of study and practice to get to that inner state where the mind slips free from the tyranny of daily life and grasps time on the grand scale. That inner state has been an option for a very long time; Mayan itz’atob, to name only one example from the past, were perfectly able to apply their knowledge of observational astronomy to time here on earth, and imagine a past that reached back over quite impressive periods and a future that stretches for millennia beyond the 2012 bak’tun-rollover that’s attracting so much undeserved attention these days. I doubt that such perspectives were easy to achieve then; they certainly aren’t easy for most people now; but they’re crucial for this week’s post, which focuses on one way that green wizards can take part in the process of evolution.

I use that word with a great deal of trepidation. There may be other concepts that have been as heavily frosted with myth, misunderstanding, ideological static and sheer unadulterated drivel, but just at the moment I can’t think of one. Our culture’s obsession with a Utopian future has turned Darwin’s simple and elegant insight into a shuttlecock batted back and forth by a flurry of ineptly handled intellectual rackets; believers in progress equate it with their notion of a future of infinite improvement, believers in apocalypse treat it as a flat denial of their faith in a future where everyone who disagrees with them will be roadkill on history’s highway, and a great many people who don’t manage to fall into either camp seem to have lost track of the fact that it means much of anything at all.

My favorite example is still the woman who put up her hand at the end of a talk of mine in a small and very liberal Left Coast town and said, “But don’t you think that children are so much more evolved than adults?” It took a few baffled questions on my part to figure out that by “evolved” she meant “nice,” from which I gathered she hadn’t spent much time around children lately. When I suggested that she might consider reading Darwin’s The Origin of Species before using the word “evolution” again, she looked horrified and asked, “Do I have to?”

Evidently so. In fact, I don’t think it’s going too far to ask my readers – especially those engaged in the Green Wizards project – to follow the same advice. Darwin was a more than capable writer; his The Voyage of the Beagle counts as one of the classics of travel literature; his scientific works are written in a more discursive and formal style than their modern equivalents, and this can take a bit of getting used to, at least for people – the majority these days, one gathers – who don’t usually read books older than they are. Still, The Origin of Species is not an intolerably long book. It can be read in a few evenings, and it’s worth investing that much time to watch the foundation of today’s life sciences being built by one of the modern world’s great minds.

Now it’s true, of course, that some of the details of Darwin’s theory have had to be changed since his time, as more evidence has come in. This doesn’t make The Origin of Species any less worth reading. There’s much to be learned, in fact, by treating the theory of evolution as an example of the process it describes: the intellectual mutation set in motion by Darwin’s work spawned a flurry of variations, which were then sorted out by the selective pressures of further research. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the same process can be traced all through intellectual history – one piece of evidence among many that evolution, in something like the sense Darwin gave the word, is a basic property of all complex systems.

One of those complex systems is the one we’ve been discussing in the last dozen or so posts, the backyard organic food garden. One of the first and most crucial things to keep in mind about that system is that it’s an ecosystem like any other; like many ecosystems, it’s primarily shaped by the actions of a single species, which in this case happens to be yours. This last point is sometimes exaggerated into the claim that a garden is somehow separate from Nature or wholly subject to human will, which is nonsense; that might be the case if you were growing your plants in a sterile growth medium sealed off from the rest of the world – a bad idea under almost any conditions, and particularly so in an age of diminishing energy and resource availability.

A more useful way to think of a garden, rather, is to compare it to those East African forests that are primarily shaped by the presence and activities of elephants, say, or the tallgrass prairies in North America that took their basic ecological beat from the pounding hooves of the buffalo. No boundary separates such ecosystems from the rest of Nature; countless other organisms evolve ways to take advantage of the opportunities opened up by the dominant species, which coevolves in turn to benefit from, or at least not get clobbered by, the other species in the ecosystem. It’s not the only way to run an ecosystem – there are plenty of ecosystems that have no single dominant species – but it’s tolerably common, and very often highly successful.

That’s what a garden is, when it’s worked in harmony with local environments and natural cycles; there’s nothing uniquely human about it at all. The one wild card is that human beings have pushed the trick of transmitting behavior by learning rather than instinct about as far as it can go, and a lot of our behaviors – in and out of gardens – thus can change far faster than the glacial pace of natural selection would permit. That’s our great strength as a species, and it’s also our greatest weakness; what it means in practice is that, on the downside, we can never be sure how well our learned behaviors are suited to the demands of our environment, and on the upside, if we pay attention to nature we can pick up useful behaviors in a tiny fraction of the time it would take for those same behaviors to get established as instinct by natural selection.

That’s also what a garden is or, rather, what gardening is. Human beings have been a dominant species in most environments since we spread out of Africa most of a million years ago; despite fashionable claims to the contrary, successful hunter-gatherer societies manage their environments, using fire and many other methods to encourage natural food production and discourage competition by other living things. What marked the shift from hunter-gatherer to tribal horticultural economies was not a change from blissful dependence on Nature’s bounty to brutal manipulation of the Earth, but rather a shift from one mode of ecological management to another, more sophisticated one. The key to the latter wasn’t planting things where they don’t grow naturally – archeological evidence shows that this was already being done in the Paleolithic – but taking a conscious role in the process of coevolution mentioned above. Instead of taking seeds from wild plants and scattering them in new places, as many hunter-gatherer cultures do, they began selecting seeds that had desirable properties and breeding new varieties of plants for their own uses.

Does that sound daunting? If you save the seeds of your own vegetables and replant them in your garden, you’re already doing it. Those seeds that don’t thrive well enough in your garden’s conditions to produce plants healthy enough to set seed themselves are being removed from the gene pool in the usual way; if you’ve got the sense the gods gave geese, you’re saving seeds from the healthiest and most productive plants, too, which means you’ve become an agent of natural selection, tilting the playing field in true Darwinian fashion in favor of the most viable variations.

It really is as simple as that. As I mentioned in last week’s post, saving seeds can be a good deal more complicated than it looks at first glance. Breeding new varieties of plants, by contrast, is a good deal less complicated than it looks; once you’ve worked out the details of saving seeds, all you need to do is pay attention, and you’re on your way. You aren’t going to create a new species, since you don’t have a million years or so to work on it, but you can certainly contribute to the genetic diversity and regional appropriateness of the species you’ve got.

This can be done equally well with perennial plants, and it can also be done with animals. Each of these have wrinkles of their own. Breeding perennials is generally a slow process, though this depends on the plant in question – when you plant an asparagus crown, for example, you normally have to wait for the third season thereafter to harvest asparagus spears and find out how they taste, so breeding a better asparagus is not a project to attempt in a hurry. Animals – at least the small and edible kind that make sense in a backyard garden – breed annually, and so developing your own breed is very much an option; you’ll need to learn something about genetics, but since most of your rabbits are going onto the menu before they breed anyway, you’ve got plenty of opportunities to select the traits you want to develop and exclude (and serve up for dinner) the ones you don’t.

If you decide to pursue this end of green wizardry at anything beyond the simplest level, The Origin of Species will become one of your better resources. Here as elsewhere in the Green Wizards project, the key to success is to figure out the way Nature does things, and copy her shamelessly. Just as, among human beings, imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery, I’ve come to think that when dealing with Nature, imitation may just be the sincerest form of reverence; put another way, it’s by learning Nature’s ways and adopting them as a basis for our own that we become better able to benefit ourselves and the biosphere at once.


The only worthwhile book I know on breeding your own vegetable varieties is Carol Deppe’s classic book, which sensibly enough is titled Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties. Information on developing varieties of trees, vines, and other perennials can also be found in the more comprehensive books on individual crops, and those who are interested in breeding animals will find the information they need in books covering individual species. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species begins with a thoughtful chapter on the variations of domesticated species, and while it’s not a practical manual for the breeder, the principles Darwin sketches out in this book ought to be kept in mind by any green wizard.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Joining In The Dance

Recent headlines, it seems to me, put an interesting slant on the much-ballyhooed claim that we live in an information society. I’m thinking here especially of the slow-motion train wreck of the US banking system now under way, courtesy of the very same system of slicing and packaging real estate debt that was praised to the skies as a brilliant financial innovation a few short years ago.

Now of course, as John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out long before the phrase “mortgage-backed securities” found its way onto any up-to-date list of popular oxymorons, innovation in the world of finance almost always refers to the rediscovery of one of a handful of very bad ideas that resulted in economic disaster every other time they’ve been used, and can be counted on to do the same thing this time, too. Still, there’s another dimension to the current mess, which is that a large fraction of the trouble that’s sent stock prices of a dozen large banks into a crash dive is the result of simple sloppiness in information handling.

The laws governing mortgages in the US sensibly require a paper trail showing all transfers of the right to collect from the mortgage, and they also require the people who process foreclosure paperwork to at least glance through the stacks of papers they’re signing. In millions of cases in America alone, these very simple steps weren’t done, the relevant information wasn’t kept or wasn’t read, and an economy that’s still staggering from the body blow it received from the implosion of the housing bubble has just taken another hit.

You might think that an information society would do better than that, but this is par for the course these days. In the modern industrial world, most of the time, the only phases of information’s life cycle that get more than cursory attention are its production and distribution, and then only in terms of raw quantities – the sort of measure that doesn’t differentiate between cures for cancer and Lady Gaga’s latest round of failed attempts to make herself look interesting. Those who insist that producing ever larger volumes of information will somehow lead us to Utopia tend to pass over the fate of all that information once it comes sluicing out the business end of our society’s information factories, and they tend to pay even less attention, if that’s possible, to the origins and destiny of the information that isn’t produced in digital form by the busy labor of human beings.

It’s this other kind of information that I’d like to place at the center of this week’s discussion, because it’s central to many aspects of the Green Wizards project. The natural world contains and circulates a vast amount of information. We can read a very small fraction of it, but that doesn’t mean we can do without it; most of what keeps human beings alive on this planet just now is a function of the information economy of nature.

There are any number of examples, but the one that comes to mind just at the moment is the wealth of information to be found in the seeds of any open-pollinated plant. Seeds can be understood in several different ways, but one of the most useful is to think of them as a medium for information storage. Like other media, they will reproduce the information they contain under some specific set of conditions; just as a DVD stores information in one form but will present it in another – for example, a movie – when you put it in a DVD player and press the start button, a seed stores information in the form of DNA, and will present it in another – a plant – when you put it in appropriate soil and add sun and water. What sets seeds apart from DVDs as a far more sophisticated information technology, of course, is that when you play a movie, the movie doesn’t manufacture new DVDs for all your friends, much less shuffle the movie just a bit in every generation, in a way that tends to produce a better plot and snappier jokes as time goes on.

Seeds, by contrast, do an exact equivalent of this. This is why when you tap a seed envelope against your hand and send a single seed rolling out onto your palm, you’re holding two billion years of stored information. That’s how long, according to current paleontology, the process of evolution has been shaping the genetic code of living things related to the ones we encounter today, and every generation across that unimaginable length of time has contributed something to the shaping of the little packet of genetic material, nutrition, and protective layers we call a plant seed.

It would be helpful if more people kept this in mind. It would also be helpful if people noticed that the different varieties of any cultivated plant very often contain hundreds or thousands of years of human-derived information on top of the two billion year collection handed over by nature. Instead, we’ve got a world in which this extraordinary wealth of information is treated even more cavalierly than big US banks treat mortgage paperwork, and in particular, where most commercial seed companies sell a handful of bland varieties aimed at the lowest common denominator, producing them each year by hybridizing processes that normally keep them from breeding true from seed in the next generation. It’s very much as though all the more interesting books in most of the nation’s libraries were to be replaced by stacks of identical copies of some gaudy journalistic volume about Lady Gaga’s cleavage.

This would be bad enough if those of us who farm or garden could count on an uninterrupted supply of Gagaesque hybrid seeds for the foreseeable future. For a range of reasons, starting with the end of the age of cheap energy, we can’t. The seed industry is one of the world’s most monopolistic; the vast majority of all seeds produced and sold in the industrial world come from a tiny handful of vast conglomerates, and their production, transport and marketing requires huge amounts of fossil fuels. It’s sobering to realize that the bankruptcy of one of the big seed corporations just before the Northern Hemisphere’s planting season could leave millions of farmers with no access to seed stock. It’s even more sobering to consider the far more likely impact of assorted financial and energy bottlenecks on seed availability as an economy in prolonged crisis intersects with spikes in energy, transport, and agricultural chemical costs as we stumble down the far side of Hubbert’s peak.

Fortunately there are other options, and I would encourage green wizards in training to explore them. The place to start, unless you happen to have a thriving garden and plenty of heirloom seed stock in place already, is one or more of the seed exchanges and small seed companies that make it their work to keep old, non-hybrid varieties of cultivated plants available. You’ll want to look for a source of this kind that carries old varieties from the area where you’re living and growing your garden, because – surprise – the varieties that do best in an organic garden in any given area are very often the varieties that did best in that area before chemical agriculture was invented. Finding a relatively local seed source is also helpful if transport becomes problematic, since your chances of being able to access seeds is a good deal better when the source is two counties away than when it’s on the far side of a continent.

The ultimate in short supply chains, of course, is to save seeds from the plants you grow. This is definitely a goal for any organic gardener to have in mind, but in my experience, at least, it’s not something to take up immediately unless you have no other choice or already have quite a bit of skill in gardening. Every species of plant has its own life cycle, every variety of plant rings its own changes on that life cycle, and the seed – the vehicle by which the plant sends its information on to the future – is often exquisitely sensitive to subtle cues you may not notice if you’re not watching. To save seed with any kind of reliable success, you need to know the life cycle, habits, and needs of the plant with which you’re working, so that you can give the seed the conditions it needs.

Some of those conditions can be very unexpected to the novice. The seeds of quite a few plants, for example, need to go through a period of fairly intense cold before they will sprout. Keep the seeds of ome of these plants in a heated basement and plant them out in spring, and you’ll get no results that year, because the seeds are waiting for the signal that tells them that winter has come and gone and it’s safe to start growing. You can give them the signal they need by storing them in an unheated space or, in the case of seeds that need a good strong chill, sticking them in the refrigerator for a couple of months. Others have a waterproof coating on the surface, and may need to be scuffed on a sheet of fine grit sandpaper. Still others have unique requirements of their own.

There are also plants that can’t be grown from seed at all, or that are best propagated in other ways. Potatoes, for example, don’t breed true from seeds – if you let yours go to seed and they set seed that’s viable, which is by no means certain, you’re as likely as not to get a half-wild Andean tuber that may or may not be edible at all. For a good many centuries, instead, potatoes have been propagated by chopping a potato into pieces, each one with its own eye, and burying the chunks in the soil. You need to know that if you want to grow potatoes – and you need to know similar lessons if you want to grow a fair number of other plants.

What this means is that you can’t save seeds or propagate plants in other ways without learning a fair amount about the plants you grow, and participating in their ecology and their life cycle. Seeds are not machines; you can’t make them do what you want them to do, unless it’s what they’ve spent the last few million years evolving to do. You have to meet them more than halfway. You can’t stand back and wrap yourself in the fraying rags of the failed myth that still convinces too many people that humanity is some kind of alien force, separate from Nature and reduced to poking her with a stick in place of any deeper communion; you have to take your seeds by the hand and join them in the dance.

Now of course this is what I’d hope to see any prospective green wizard doing, in one way or another. All our work in this project can be seen from one perspective as learning how to make sense of the information provided us by nature, rather than restricting our diet of information to the often far less nourishing fare served up in horse doctor’s doses by the various mass production and dissemination schemes of human society. Using solar energy on a small scale, for example, can’t be done successfully unless you shake off the assumptions that three hundred years of ever more abundant fossil fuel supplies have taught those of us who live in the world’s industrial nations, and learn how to think about energy from sunlight; that’s what will show you what you can do with the sun’s diffuse heat, and how to orient yourself in space and time to make the best use of it. Choose some other piece of appropriate technology or green living and you’ll find yourself in the same place, learning what you need to know from a teacher who doesn’t happen to be human and doesn’t speak the language you do, but is more than willing to lead you in the dance we call Nature.

Next week we’ll be talking about another way to participate in that dance. For now, I’d like to encourage students of green wizardry to put some time into locating sources of heirloom and non-hybrid seeds in their own regions, and get themselves on mailing lists for a few local seed catalogs; if you have any way of putting in a garden this coming spring, you should plan on doing so, and in that case you’ll want the catalogs this winter. If the seed sources you find are nonprofits, send a few dollars their way as a donation to help cover the cost of the catalog – many of them operate on shoestring budgets, and the collapsing economy has left the shoestring even more frayed than usual. A book or two on saving seeds might also be a good purchase at this time, if your organic gardening library doesn’t already contain ample information on that subject.


The two books I’ve always used as information sources for saving seeds and propagating plants are Marc Rogers’ Saving Seeds -- an expanded version of the Seventies classic Growing and Saving Vegetable Seeds -- and Lewis Hill’s Secrets of Plant Propagation. Both books give a fair amount of space to garden ornamentals, and Hill likes to use chemical pesticides, which has always seemed unnecessary to me; still, both books contain a wealth of practical information. Many general books on organic gardening also include a chapter on saving your own seeds, or include this and other propagation instructions in the sections that cover specific food plants.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Preponderance of the Small

I suspect many Americans these days are coming to appreciate the custom that places the peak of campaigning season in the days on either side of Halloween. This year, the usual and interchangeable Demublican political hacks trick-or-treating for votes have been joined on the midnight streets of the American psyche by a medley of mad hatters and March hares from a Tea Party as strange as the one Alice attended in Wonderland, with the spectral forms of thousand-handed robosigners and zombie banks looming over all. It’s enough to keep mere vampires and mummies cowering in their crypts.

There’s something very reminiscent of Halloween, too, in the way that the frightening and the funny have gotten all tangled together in recent headlines. The infighting that’s broken out among the moneyed classes of late is an example worth noting. The cause of the quarrel is simple enough: in the next few years, somebody is going to end up holding several trillion dollars in mortgage-backed securities that aren’t worth the paper no one got around to printing them on. Nobody wants to be the chump left holding the bag, and as a result, a once-sacrosanct consensus that kept the investment industry and the media alike from pointing and giggling at each season’s crop of rank fiscal absurdities is coming hastily unglued.

Now of course the implosion of America’s mortgage debt is no laughing matter. Millions of people have lost their savings, their pensions, and their jobs as a result of it, and the aftermath of the brief era of wretched excess that ended so messily in 2008 will continue to burden families and blight futures for a decade or more, even if every possible effort goes into mitigating the consequences for the bulk of Americans – and every policy proposal made by either party so far leads in the opposite direction. Still, there’s plenty of gallows humor to be had watching fund managers and pundits announce that they’re shocked, shocked! to discover the widely publicized problems with the mortgage-backed “securities” they themselves helped market so eagerly a few short years ago.

Still, the echo of Halloween I hear most strongly in America just now is one that goes to the heart of the holiday. We pretend to be scared of ghosts and vampires and non-financial zombies, after all, because it’s a way of coping with the real terror all these things represent, which is of course our fear of our own mortality. In the same way, I’ve come to think, a great deal of the fearful predictions now surging throuigh the blogosphere and the mainstream media alike are attempts at coping with a more immediate and real fear, which – again, like death – is hidden behind a flurry of euphemisms. The one that comes to mind just at the moment is “quantitative easing.”

Many of my readers will have heard the calm and sanitized announcement this evening that the Federal Reserve Board will be buying $600 billion of US federal debt over the next seven months. I’m not sure how many of my readers have noted that this is the amount of debt the US government expects to issue over the next seven months. I’m even less sure how many of my readers have noticed that the Fed will be paying for these purchases by exercising its legal right to produce US dollars out of thin air. In other words, the United States is now printing money to pay its bills.

There may be an example somewhere in the long history of finance when a country has done this without facing catastrophic economic consequences in the fairly near term, but I don’t happen to know of one. Once a country starts covering its debts by way of the printing press, the collapse of its currency and its economy is pretty much a foregone conclusion. The exact way in which the consequences come due varies from case to case; the hyperinflation made famous by Weimar Germany and, more recently, Zimbabwe is only one of the options, and there are good reasons to think that this isn’t the most likely outcome just at the moment.

My own guess, for what it’s worth, is that we’re headed into a state of affairs that might as well be called hyperstagflation: the economy and money supply both contract, but the demand for dollars drops faster than the supply as holders of dollar-denominated assets scramble to cash in their dollars for anything that might preserve a fraction of their paper value. As in the stagflation of the Seventies, but much more drastically, prices go up while employment goes down until the economy shudders to a halt.

Now of course that’s far from the only possibility; we could see a straightforward deflationary collapse; we could also see increasingly reckless use of the printing press overwhelm the contraction of the money supply altogether and tip us into old-fashioned hyperinflation. What we won’t see for very much longer, though, is what currently passes for business as usual. I suspect a great many people in the financial community are aware of that – a supposition that gains some support from recent reports that corporate insiders in a range of industries are selling off their shares of their own companies’ stock at a record pace. I suspect the rest of us will become aware of it, too, as we approach the kind of economic, social, and (inevitably) political disruptions that people later describe in hushed tones to their grandchildren.

All these considerations may appear unrelated to green wizardry — the home gardens, handicrafts, conservation measures and back-to-basics measures that have been central to this blog’s trajectory for the last several months. The seeming mismatch between the immense societal crisis unfolding around us and the backyard projects for individuals and families I’ve been suggesting here has been the topic of a fair amount of comment in the peak oil blogosphere, of course, and the Green Wizardry project has been criticized more than once for failing to offer some grand response that will solve the problems facing industrial society – or, rather, will make a comforting claim to do so, and so provide a tune for the whistling past the graveyard that seems to occupy so much effort these days.

I’m glad to say that not all the critiques of the Green Wizardry project have been on this level. At the other end of the spectrum is a very thoughtful discussion by Erik Lindberg of Transition Milwaukee of the debate a few months back between myself and Rob Hopkins. The essay is titled The Long and the Short of It: Existential Comfort in the Age of Hopkins and Greer; it’s in five parts -- Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 – and offers the clearest perspective I’ve yet seen on the differences that Rob and I tried to air in our contending essays.

One of the things that makes this interesting to me is that Lindberg founds his discussion on literary theory. He’s refreshingly attentive to the role of narratives in shaping visions of the future, mine and Rob’s among them, and uses a division of narratives into four types – romance, tragedy, comedy, and farce – to make sense of the differences between the Transition narrative, on the one hand, and the narrative of which the Green Wizardry project is a practical expression, on the other. The Transition narrative, he suggests, is romance, defined as a story where a heroic protagonist (in this case, the Transition movement) sets out to achieve an improbable goal and does in fact achieve it. The narrative that gives Green Wizardry its context, in his view, is tragedy, defined as a story in which a heroic protagonist (in this case, modern industrial civilization) is brought low by the inevitable consequences of its own arrogant and mistaken decisions.

So far, so good. Still, the Green Wizardry project itself doesn’t offer a tragic narrative. In a very real sense, it’s an effort to find a working alternative to the central dynamic of tragedy, the doomed attempt of the tragic hero to overcome the fate his own hubris has brought down on his head. Perhaps the one real misstep in Lindberg’s critique is that he managed to miss this, though it’s explained in so many words in a passage he quoted from The Ecotechnic Future, the book of mine he used to ground his discussion. (When an analysis of a text has to rest the full weight of its argument on a single exclamation point, as Lindberg’s does, that’s normally a sign that something has gone amiss.)

The narrative at the core of the Green Wizardry project, in fact, is a comic narrative. Put that baldly, the notion may seem horribly out of place. Still, the same logic that leads us to festoon our houses every October with terrors in which we don’t believe, in order to help ourselves come to terms with a terror in which we all unavoidably believe, is at work here as well. Comedy is the natural human response to tragedy. It’s for this reason that Shakespeare put comic turns cheek by jowl with the starkest of his tragic scenes – the gatekeeper’s soliloquy right after Duncan’s murder in Macbeth, the Fool’s ingenious nonsense punctuating the agony of King Lear. It’s for the same reason that in classical times, each trilogy of ancient Greek tragedies was finished up with a satire, and Japanese Noh plays to this day are divided by comic interludes.

To understand this, it’s useful to pay attention to the nature of the protagonists of the four kinds of narrative Lindberg discusses. The heroes of tragedy are always exceptional persons in exceptional situations. So are the heroes of romance – Luke Skywalker may look like just another Tatooine farm boy, but there’s an old man with a light saber in his future, and the Force is with him. So, on the other end of the scale, are the protagonists of farce, who make fun of our pretensions by being exceptionally foolish, greedy, lustful, or what have you.

Comic heroes are the exception precisely because they aren’t exceptional, and neither are the situations in which they find themselves. The protagonist of Comedy is Everyman or Everywoman, and the world he or she must confront is the same one we encounter in our own lives. This is why the great tragedies and romances always contain just enough comedy to draw the spectators in and undercut the distance they try to put between themselves and the tragic or romantic hero, and it’s also why the truly great comedies always dance on the edge of tragedy, romance, or both at once, pushing their protagonists right up to the limits of the ordinary but never quite across it.

In a gentler age, we might have the luxury of understanding the impact of history’s arc on our lives in the context of comedy pure and simple. Here in America, at least, that option has been foreclosed – or if it remains open, it’s only by way of the wry sort of comedy Cervantes made famous in Don Quixote, in which a very ordinary person becomes convinced he’s a hero out of romance, goes forth to seek some grandiose destiny, and runs headlong into one disaster after another until enough of the stuffing is pounded out of him that he heads home to La Mancha. Still, at least one other kind of comedy is open to us, and it’s the kind I’ve sketched out above, the kind that provides a counterpoint and some degree of relief to a larger tragedy.

The core plot of tragedy, again, is that an extraordinary person attempts the impossible and is destroyed. The core plot of comedy, by contrast, is that a completely ordinary person attempts some equally ordinary task and, despite all the obstacles the author can come up with, succeeds in winning through to some modest but real achievement. When it stands on its own, comedy gets its effect by reminding us that, no matter how ordinary we are, and how embarrassing the tangles we create for ourselves, we can reasonably hope to stumble our way through it all and achieve something worthwhile. When it functions as a counterpoint for tragedy, this same effect is even more powerful; as the tragic hero in all his magnificence crashes and burns, the comic counterpoint scrambles out of the way of the flaming wreckage and finds afterward that, like Candide, he can at least tend his garden.

Yes, I’m suggesting that this is basically the best we can hope for at this point in the turning of history’s wheel. If the promising beginnings of the 1970s had been followed up in the decades that followed, we might have had a reasonable shot at a narrative of romance; as the Hirsch Report pointed out, getting through peak petroleum production without massive economic trauma can be done if you get to work on it twenty years in advance of the peak. We didn’t, and those possibilities are now water (however oil-stained) under the bridge at this point. The world’s industrial nations chose, in effect, to embrace the role of the tragic hero instead, and they’ve worked at it with gusto; the current US administration’s decision to put America’s economic collapse on the fast track by paying its bills via the printing press is a grand bit of tragic action, the sort of deliberate flouting of destiny that makes hubris its own nemesis.

Those who want to play the role of tragic hero on a smaller scale, in turn, can certainly do so; embracing some romantic fantasy of salvation or other, with a heroic disregard for the hard constraints closing in on us here and now, is one very promising option. Still, this role has practical disadvantages, starting with the aforementioned habit of crashing and burning. It’s for that reason that I’ve suggested a more prosaic alternative, which is to set out to do the small things that individuals in a disintegrating society can actually accomplish to better their own lives, and those of their families and communities, while simultaneously handing down useful gifts to the future. That’s the central theme of the Green Wizardry project, though of course there are many other ways to pursue the same kind of goal.

It’s not accidental, I think, that the anonymous Chinese sages who assembled the I Ching – and who had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the rise and fall of empires – made room for this strategy among the patterns of change in that ancient text:

Hsiao Kuo, the Preponderance of the Small.
Success. Perseverance furthers.
Small things may be done; great things should not be done.
The flying bird brings the message:
It is not well to strive upward, it is well to remain below.
Great good fortune.

In this season, when the flying birds are headed southward with messages of the coming winter, this may be good advice to follow. In next week’s post, we’ll get back to the nitty gritty of following it, with some pointers on the dance of genetic information that’s set in motion by saving seeds.