Monday, November 30, 2015

One-Straw Revolutionary

Long, long ago, hip folks in the Beatles era were jabbering about Masanobu Fukuoka’s book, The One-Straw Revolution.  It explained how he grew healthy food via natural farming, a low budget, low impact approach.  On his farm in Japan, Fukuoka was growing grain, fruit, and vegetables without plowing, cultivating, chemicals, compost, fertilizer, fossil energy, erosion, pruning, or regular weeding.  He farmed like this for more than 25 years, and his yields were comparable to those at conventional farms.

The Japanese edition of his book was published in 1975, at a time when oil shocks had spurred interest in energy efficiency.  When the English version was published in 1978, it was an international smash hit, and Fukuoka became a celebrity.  Larry Korn was the book’s translator.  He’s a California lad who worked on Fukuoka’s farm for more than two years.  Now, in 2015, Korn has published One-Straw Revolutionary, which is the subject of this review.  It describes Fukuoka the man, and his philosophy, with glowing praise.

Korn detests conventional industrial farming, because it has so many drawbacks.  A bit less troublesome is organic farming done on an industrial scale.  At the positive end of the spectrum, he sees Fukuoka’s natural farming as very close to the ideal, both environmentally and philosophically.  A bit less wonderful than natural farming are permaculture and old-fashioned small-scale organic farming.

The ideal is something like the California Indians that were fondly described in M. Kat Anderson’s book, Tending the Wild.  They were wild hunter-gatherers who included wild plant seeds in their diet.  They devoted special care to the wild plant species that were important to their way of life.  Most folks would consider this to be mindful foraging — tending, not farming.

These Indians did not till the soil, and were not warlike.  Nobody owned the land.  There were no masters or servants.  There was no market system or tax collectors.  They had a time-proven method for living, and this knowledge was carefully passed from generation to generation.  The Indians were wild, free, and living sustainably — in the original meaning of the word.  When the Spanish invaders arrived, they saw these Indians as lazy, because they worked so little.

Fukuoka, on the other hand, resided in a densely populated industrial civilization, which was eagerly adapting American style industrial agriculture.  While the Indians foraged in a healthy wild ecosystem, Fukuoka worked on an ecosystem that had been heavily altered by centuries of agriculture.  He raised domesticated plants and animals.  Fukuoka was experimenting with radically unconventional methods, and had no traditions or mentors to guide him.

He practiced natural farming on one acre (0.4 ha) of grain field, and ten acres (4 ha) devoted to a mix of fruit trees and vegetables.  When Korn arrived in 1974, Fukuoka was assisted by five apprentices, who were not at all lazy, and rarely had a day off.  Cash had to be generated to purchase necessities and pay taxes, so surplus food had to be produced.  Food shipped off to cities carried away phosphorus, potassium, and other minerals that never returned to the farm’s soil.  Thus, his natural farming was quite different from California tending.

On the plus side, Fukuoka’s experiment benefitted from rich soil and generous rainfall — especially during the growing season.  Vegetables could be grown year round in the mild climate, and two crops of grain could be harvested each year.  On the down side, few succeeded in duplicating his success, even in Japan.  It took years to get the operation working, requiring extra servings of intuition and good luck.  Korn warned, “In most parts of North America and the world the specific method Mr. Fukuoka uses would be impractical.” 

In the natural farming mindset, the strategy should not be guided by intellect; nature should run the show.  Fukuoka talked to plants, asking them for guidance.  When he planted the orchard, he added a mixture of 100 types of seeds to wet clay, made seed balls, and tossed the balls on the land.  Seeds included grains, vegetables, flowers, clover, shrubs, and trees.  Nature decided what thrived and what didn’t.  Within a few years, a jungle of dense growth sorted itself out.  But sometimes nature gave him a dope slap.  In the early days, Fukuoka allowed nature to manage an existing orchard, and he was horrified to watch 400 trees die from insects and disease.

My work focuses on ecological sustainability, at a time when the original meaning of sustainability has largely been abandoned, and replaced by sparkly marketing hype.  I go on full alert when I see “sustainable agriculture.”  In my book, What is Sustainable, I took a look at what Korn calls “indigenous agriculture,” which is often imagined to be sustainable.

California tending was far different from the intensive corn farming on the other side of the Rockies, which led to soil depletion, erosion, population growth, health problems, warfare, and temporary civilizations like Cahokia.  In his book Indians of North America, Harold E. Driver estimated that less than half of North America was inhabited by farmers, but 90 to 95 percent of Native Americans ate crop foods, indicating that farm country was densely populated.  In corn country, defensive palisades surrounded many villages.

In 2015, humankind is temporarily in extreme overshoot, as the cheap energy bubble glides toward its sunset years, and the climate change storms are moving in.  Obviously, feeding seven billion sustainably is impossible.  At the same time, highly unsustainable industrial farming cannot continue feeding billions indefinitely.  It’s essential that young folks have a good understanding of ecological sustainability, and our education system is doing a terrible job of informing them.

The California Indians provide an important example of a vital truth.  When voluntary self-restraint was used to keep population below carrying capacity, people could live sustainably in a wild ecosystem via nothing more complex than hunting and foraging.  They had no need for farming, with its many headaches, backaches, and heartaches.

Korn’s book got exciting near the end.  Farming was just one facet of Fukuoka’s dream.  As a young man, he attended an agriculture college, and then endured a dreary job as a plant inspector.  His mind overloaded, his health fell apart, and he nearly died.  In 1937, he had a beautiful vision, quit his job, and went back home to the farm. 

In his vision, he suddenly realized that all life was one, and sacred.  Nature was whole, healthy, and perfect — and nothing our ambitious intellects imagined could improve this harmonious unity in any way.  Humans do not exist in a realm outside of nature, no matter what our teachers tell us.  Heaven is where your feet are standing.

The world of 1937 was a filthy, crazy, overpopulated train wreck, and this was largely thanks to science, dogmas, and philosophies.  Intellect alienated us from our “big life” home.  Civilization had created a dysfunctional world that was far too complex.  The lives of most people were no longer intimately connected to the natural world.

In agriculture, the herd of experts insisted that plowing, pruning, cultivating, chemicals, and weeding were mandatory for success.  One after another, Fukuoka abandoned these required tasks, made some needed adjustments, and didn’t crash.  His farm got simpler and healthier.

No other animals harm themselves by pursuing science.  Fukuoka realized that people should be like birds.  “Birds don’t run around carefully preparing fields, planting seeds, and harvesting food.  They don’t create anything… they just receive what is there for them with a humble and grateful heart.”  Bingo!

How can we reorient to nature?  “For most of us, that process begins by unlearning most of the things we were taught when we were young.”  The healing process requires abandoning many, many beliefs and behaviors that our culture encourages.  We need to waste less, spend less, and earn less, take only what we need, and nothing more.  “Wearing simple clothing, eating simple food, and living a humble, ordinary life elevates the human spirit by bringing us closer to the source of life.”

Korn, Larry, One-Straw Revolutionary, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vermont, 2015.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Grizzly Years

Doug Peacock grew up in rural northern Michigan.  As a boy, he spent a lot of time alone outdoors, exploring the woods, swamps, and streams.  Later, he fell in love with the West, especially the Rockies.  He enjoyed fishing and rock climbing.  His plan was to become a geologist, so he could wander around in the great outdoors and get paid for it.  But one day he realized that his dream career would likely involve working for oil and mining companies, “whose rape of wild country repelled me.”  Sadly, he abandoned the plan, and volunteered for an exciting job with the U.S. government.

Peacock loved the central highlands of Vietnam.  It was a gorgeous region, inhabited by good people.  Then, the war spread there.  He was employed as a medic in the Green Berets, an elite combat unit.  His job was to provide first aid to injured soldiers and villagers, and the fighting kept him very busy.  He witnessed far too much senseless death, destruction, and suffering, far too many dead children.

By and by, he came down with a devastating case of war rage, which he has been struggling with for most of his life.  Back in American society, it was no longer possible to blend into the crowd, and feel at home.  He couldn’t talk to his family.  He spent a lot of time in the woods, trying to pickle his demons with cheap wine.  Finally, he bought a jeep, and headed west, to pursue two powerful medicines: solitude and wildness.

For American soldiers, Vietnam was not as safe and secure as strolling through a shopping mall.  There were tigers, vipers, snipers, booby traps, and Vietcong.  The odds for survival were boosted by good luck, common sense, being with experienced warriors, remaining as silent and invisible as possible, and maintaining a state of heightened awareness.  Survivors slept lightly, easily awakened by snapping twigs and other irregular sounds.  Survivors developed an acute sense of smell, because an odd whiff could warn of danger.  Survivors frequently stopped, looked, and listened.

Similar skills were useful when moving through grizzly bear country, where Peacock spent many post-war years.  Near the beginning of his wilderness quest, he hiked around a corner and discovered that a large brown grizzly was approaching, and it was not at all happy to see him.  The bear’s head was swinging back and forth, jaws gnashing, ears flattened, hair standing up on his hump — the ritual that precedes charging, mauling, and a bloody hot lunch.

Peacock slowly pulled out his large caliber handgun, had second thoughts, and lowered it.  His shooting days were over.  He was ready to die.  Something happened, the energy changed.  “The grizzly slowly turned away from me with grace and dignity and swung into the timber at the end of the meadow.”  It was a life-changing experience.  He became a grizzly tracker.  He acquired a movie camera and began filming them.  He did winter lecture tours, wrote about bears, and told his story in Grizzly Years.

Importantly, the book reminds us of a forgotten reality, living in wild country amidst man-eating predators — the normal everyday reality for our wild ancestors, whose genes we inherited.  Outside my window each morning, the blue jays stop by for a pumpkin seed breakfast.  Before they glide down from branch to porch, they look in every direction for winged predators and pussy cats.  They don’t live in a constant state of fear and paranoia, they simply live with prudent caution, look before leaping, and never do stupid things.

In grizzly country, Peacock stayed away from animal trails, and slept in concealed locations.  He tried to remain invisible and silent.  He tried to approach bears from downwind, so his scent would not alert them.  He spent years studying bear behavior, and the quirks of individual animals.  He was charged many times, but never mauled.  He learned how to behave properly during close encounters.  Never run, climb trees, make loud noises, move suddenly, or look weak and fearful.  Instead, act dignified, and display peaceful intentions without appearing docile.  Calmly talk to the bear, while keeping your head turned to the side.

Peacock’s tales are precious, because they encourage readers to imagine wilderness as their true home, and to contemplate the normal everyday tactics used by our wild ancestors to avoid being eaten.  Grizzly country was one place where humans were not the dominant critter.  The bears could kill you and eat you whenever they wished.  This ongoing possibility freed Peacock from wasting hour after hour in self-indulgence — thinking, analyzing, daydreaming.  It demanded that he always pay acute attention to the here and now.

Americans expect wilderness to be as safe as a mall.  We don’t want to be killed and eaten when visiting a national park, yet parks foolishly build trails and campgrounds in high-risk locations.  If a hiker is mauled, bears are killed.  Now, if a cat kills a blue jay, we don’t kill the cat.  In automobile country, the streets are lined with busy enterprises selling chunks of dead animals.  So, why are government bureaucrats so uptight about what God-fearing American bears choose to have for dinner in the privacy of their own homes?  Why do delicious primates from Chicago expect to be safe in grizzly country?

I’ve never seen a “Save the Grizzlies” bumper sticker.  To maintain a pleasant Disneyland experience, and avoid lawsuits, the Park Service kills aggressive bears, and bears that beg for snacks.  Backcountry outfitters kill them.  Ranchers kill them.  Violators get light punishment from judges in redneck country.  Bear numbers are in decline, and this infuriates Peacock.

In Vietnam, he had a ringside seat at a contest between a full-blown industrial civilization and a society that practiced muscle-powered subsistence farming.  He witnessed the indiscriminant massacre of countless innocent villagers and children.  Back in the U.S., he saw that the same monster was obliterating western ecosystems, from mines in the Rockies, to developers in Tucson.  He had escaped from the Vietnam War, but there was no escape from the American war on America, where “greedy scumsuckers” were raping and desecrating “the last refuge of sanity on the planet.”

Peacock wasn’t the only Vietnam vet with war rage who found sanctuary in the mountains.  Other vets were equally pissed at the scumsuckers.  They had lost many friends while defending the freedom and democracy of God’s most cherished nation.  And so, in those mountains, angry American vets defended the sacred American ecosystem against the atrocities of the “syphilization” they had been trained to serve.  When loggers built bridges that had not been authorized by the angry vets, the bridges were mysteriously demolished.  So were helicopters used for oil exploration.

Peacock did not become a corporate geologist, and spend the rest of his life shopping with the herd.  It was a great gift to live so many years outside the walls.  He was able to observe the insane monster that lurks behind the cartoonish fa├žade of the American Dream, and he was able to explain the horrors that so many folks inside the walls were unable to see, feel, or imagine.  In wild country, Peacock was careful to never be seen, or reveal his plans.  “If I got into serious trouble, I didn’t want to be rescued.  My considerable carcass could feed the bears.”

Lots of additional information can be found at his website.  He’s also the star of numerous YouTube lectures and interviews.

Peacock, Doug, Grizzly Years — In Search of the American Wilderness, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2011.  [Originally 1990]

Friday, November 13, 2015


The following is a rough draft of the introduction to my third book.

Welcome to Understanding Sustainability!  On the following pages, you will find reviews of books that explore many facets of ecological sustainability, an extremely important subject that remains largely unknown in our society.  You will meet authors with gifts for thinking outside the box, writers who can give us keys to treasure chests of vital knowledge.  It’s sad to wreck the ecosystem for no good reason — or any reason at all.  It’s especially sad that the masterminds of the great demolition are among the world’s “best-educated” people, and they have countless “well-educated” collaborators.

In its original meaning, a sustainable way of life is one that can continue for millennia without causing permanent degradation to the ecosystem.  All animals have succeeded at living in this manner, and they have done so for millions of years.  They can satisfy their essential needs (food and shelter) without damaging the community of life, a precious skill.

But one species has spawned several billion smarty-pants renegades who have stumbled far from the path of balance.  This outlaw society is zooming into deep trouble, and it barely understands why.  If we understood why, there is a fair chance that we would behave in a manner that was less destructive.  There is a fair chance that we would abandon myths that hobble our ability to think clearly and live responsibly.

Outlaw society is heavily addicted to extracting nonrenewable resources, like coal, oil, gas, metals, phosphates, potash, and on and on.  The reserves of these resources are diminishing every day, while the cost of extracting them increases.  Obviously, this approach can only operate temporarily.  It has an expiration date, a point at which the goodies are depleted, the bubble bursts, and the machine melts down.  No other animals suffer from addiction to nonrenewable resources, because they continue to live in their traditional manner.  They did not get lost.

Outlaw society is also heavily addicted to depleting renewable resources at rates faster than nature can replenish them.  We’re exterminating forests, mass murdering fish, destroying topsoil, draining aquifers, and pumping rivers dry.  This is also a dead end.  Other animals don’t mutilate the ecosystem.

Outlaw society generates many wastes and emissions at levels far beyond the ecosystem’s ability to harmlessly absorb them, and this is causing serious irreparable damage — melting icecaps, acidic seawater, coastal dead zones.  No wild animal has basic needs that require high-impact amusements like automobiles, computers, or electricity — these are “wants” not “needs,” and we don’t need wants.  Needs are basic and simple, wants include everything money can buy.

Most of humankind is in overshoot, because our population and way of life far exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth’s ecosystem.  Every day, the planet’s carrying capacity shrinks, as the ongoing ecological wreckage accumulates, and this worsens the overshoot.  Nature has a low tolerance for overshoot, and outlaw society is too lost to comprehend why it’s swirling the drain.  Luckily, there are effective cures for ignorance, and they are most often found outside the walls of the outlaw culture.

In the following pages, you will not find The Solution.  Only problems have solutions — sleepiness is a problem that can be solved by taking a nap.  Predicaments, on the other hand, cannot be effectively eliminated by solutions.  There are no rituals, medicines, or gizmos for undoing climate change, or inspiring educators to abandon their diabolical obsession with perpetual growth.  We are way over our heads in predicaments. 

Every civilization collapses, and ours will too, one way or another, suddenly or gradually.  This is perfectly normal.  Industrial civilization was designed to grow like crazy, flame out, and collapse.  And we were thoroughly trained to devote our lives to it, so don’t be embarrassed, be annoyed.  The consumer way of life was a grand adventure in soul-killing foolishness.  The squirrels in the tree outside my window are so much healthier and happier.  They live in the here and now, satisfying their needs, playing with great enthusiasm, celebrating the perfection of creation.

Now, if these yucky ideas make you twitch and squirm, there is an effective distraction — magical thinking!  The well-educated wizards of outlaw society have a thrilling answer for everything — sustainable growth, sustainable fish mining, sustainable soil mining, sustainable forest mining, and on and on.  I call this ersatz sustainability, a murky elixir of snake oil loaded with mind-numbing intoxicants.  We see and hear the word sustainable many times each day, and this is what it usually refers to.  Sustainability can be anything we want it to be!  If we call something “sustainable” enough times, then it is!  Whee!

The devious wizards are giddy with joy, because humankind has finally completed the long and difficult journey to Utopia.  This is it!  We are the luckiest generation of all!  Wild predators no longer devour our friends and relatives.  Pandemic disease and world wars are ancient history.  More and more babies survive to maturity and reproduce.  Natural selection no longer weeds out the weaklings and mutants, because science has rendered evolution obsolete.  We’re working hard on a cure for death.

A growing population is wonderful, because it allows more and more to enjoy the Utopian delights.  Feeding ten billion will be no problem, thanks to science and technology.  Eliminating climate change will be a piece of cake.  The transition from fossil energy to renewable energy will be smooth and painless.  Ingenious innovation will make all the bad stuff go away, and we’ll all be able to continue enjoying a wondrous high tech lifestyle without any major sacrifices.  Electric cars, green energy, and all the latest gadgets can now be made from sustainable fairy dust and good vibes.  Utopia is awesome.

The Sustainable Development cult has billions of converts.  Its holy mission is to keep industrial civilization on life support for as long as possible, at any cost, and leave the bills for the kids.  It’s about enduring jobs you don’t like, to buy stuff you don’t need, to impress people you don’t respect.  It’s about living as if we are the last generation, without a thought for those who come after us.  It’s a sustainable suicide cult. 

Nobody reading these pages in 2015 will experience humankind’s return to genuine sustainability.  Healing will take centuries, and success is not guaranteed.  Luck is fickle.  Our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, share about 99 percent of our genes.  Their ancestors have lived in the same place for two million years without trashing it.  They did not get lost.

Humans strayed onto a very different path, and the way that most of us now live is the opposite of sustainable.  Yet every day we are bombarded by grand proclamations of ersatz sustainability, thundering geysers of bull excrement.  My mission here is to provide intelligent pilgrims with tools that increase their ability to recognize the difference between ecological sustainability and ersatz sustainability.  Where we belong is so far from where we are. 

It is deeply troubling to contemplate the staggering implications of ecological sustainability, because they blow the fundamental illusions of our culture to smithereens.  We are indeed animals, and we are indeed living in an unbelievably harmful manner.  Should we think about this?  Should we talk about this?  What should we do?  Well-fed minds and clear thinking are vital.

The reviews in Understanding Sustainability will introduce you to dozens of books that might be of interest.  Reviews only provide hints of the contents.  They are never a substitute for reading the full work.  Authors that intrigue you may have written other books or essays.  They may be the stars of online videos.  Critical thinking is essential for any adventure in learning.  I do not agree with every idea in every book reviewed here.

Understanding Sustainability is a companion to my previous book, Sustainable or Bust, another collection of book reviews.  Both supplement my first book, What is Sustainable, an introduction to environmental history and good old fashioned fundamentalist sustainability.  If you like one, you’ll like them all.