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Wendell Berry: We went to the mountaintop but it wasn’t there

Wendell Berry, New Southerner
… Coal is undoubtedly something of value. And it is, at present, something we need-though we must hope we will not always need it, for we will not always have it. But coal, like the other fossil fuels, is a peculiar commodity. It is valuable to us only if we burn it. Once burned, it is no longer a commodity but only a problem, a source of energy that has become a source of pollution. And the source of the coal itself is not renewable. When the coal is gone, it will be gone forever, and the coal economy will be gone with it.

The natural resources of permanent value to the so-called coalfields of Eastern Kentucky are the topsoils and the forests and the streams. These are valuable, not, like coal, on the condition of their destruction, but on the opposite condition: that they should be properly cared for. And so we need, right now, to start thinking better than we ever have before about topsoils and forests and streams. We must think about all three at once, for it is a violation of their nature to think about any one of them alone.

The mixed mesophytic forest of the Cumberland Plateau was a great wonder and a great wealth before it was almost entirely cut down in the first half of the last century. Its regrowth could become a great wonder and a great wealth again; it could become the basis of a great regional economy-but only if it is properly cared for. Knowing that the native forest is the one permanent and abundant economic resource of the region ought to force us to see the need for proper care, and the realization of that need ought to force us to see the difference between a forest ecosystem and a coal mine. Proper care can begin only with the knowledge of that difference. A forest ecosystem, respected and preserved as such, can be used generation after generation without diminishment-or it can be regarded merely as an economic bonanza, cut down, and used up. The difference is a little like that between using a milk cow, and her daughters and granddaughters after her, for a daily supply of milk, renewable every year-or killing her for one year’s supply of beef.

(January/February 2006)

Wendell Berry’s essay is the Afterword to the book Missing Mountains: We went to the mountaintop but it wasn’t there. Berry is one of America’s unrecognized national treasures: a poet, essayist and teacher, who has farmed for decades near Port Royal, Kentucky. (Mr. Wendell Berry of Kentucky).

The current issue of “New Southerner” magazine has an online interview with Berry.

Progress hits home: Did we mean to trade our birthright for a wide selection of bathmats

Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Orion
I can’t help it if I want to live in the past-the time forty years ago when there was still some wide-open space into which to insert some dreaming, and still some darkness at night over it. There was quiet, the birthright of all us animals, and somehow there was more time in a day than there is now. The world belonged then to the people who lived in it.

We nostalgists are bravely marching into battle, eager to face the advancing tanks of human history. Our vernal tendencies to believe all endings are happy ever after prevented us from seeing the rotting carcass of truth right in front of us: “progress” is just another word for larceny. Now our hearts are filled with the strength of righteousness. Take up arms in readiness: our plastic cocktail swords glint green and red in the sun. …

Our neural pathways were formed by millions of years of existence in communities of our fellows where daily congregation and rituals and exercises made us what we became, and thus whole. Then a few years ago, give or take, they thought up the fetishization of personal property and the automobile and the installation of industry at the tippytop of the rights chain, and bingo: no more meeting places and no more walking and no more breathing of air and viewing of sky and mythmaking to explain the experience…

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of The Place You Love Is Gone: Progress Took It Away, to be published in January by Norton and excerpted here with permission.
(January/February 2006)

Reflections on energy and our future

Susan Ornelas, Times-Standard (Humboldt County, California)
We lived without electricity for a few days. The wind blew, trees fell, and people lost connection to the electric grid. There was still natural gas for cooking and heating water, comforts that made it bearable with no electricity. For those without wood stoves, it was a cold couple of days.

Lots of supermarket frozen food was thrown away from the lack of power. Frozen food thaws when the electricity goes down. Hardware stores sold out of generators, and people struggled with how to keep food cold and lights on. Some folks enjoyed an evening or so of romantic candlelight dinners, but then what?

What do you do with yourself on a long winter night without electricity?

One can’t face a situation of no electricity without thinking of the past — what did people do before electricity was so easy, and so dependable? Only 100 years ago it was a novelty. Without electricity at night, most likely people gathered around a fire, played instruments, and socialized more. They must have gotten more sleep. Maybe it wasn’t so bad
(1 February 2006)

Ian Lowe: Stealing from the future
(or how to destroy the planet in seven easy steps)

The Futures Foundation (Australia)
Parents in today’s western societies are cheating their children by funding their own lifestyles from the future, says Ian Lowe, emeritus professor at Brisbane’s Griffith University and president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

In a powerful presentation to an international audience at the Global Mind, Global Soul, Global Action conference at Tamkang University in Taiwan, Professor Lowe emphasised that the future is not somewhere we are going, but something we are creating.

“There are many possible futures. We should be trying to establish a future that can be sustained, even if not for the four to five million years that the earth is expected to last. Not doing that is selling short our children by funding our lifestyles from the future.”

Taking an unusual approach, Professor Lowe then set out to describe how one might go about destroying a planet, by destroying its future.

“How could we do it?

“We could start with exponential population growth.

“Then we could increase the rate of consumption per person. We could base our economy on consumption, stimulating consumption that is not necessary. In fact, we could stimulate consumption by appealing to the seven deadly sins. (Or, as Clive Hamilton puts it, we could use money we don’t have to buy things we don’t want to impress people we don’t like.)

“Then we could deplete significant mineral resources, starting with oil. We could over-use potentially renewable resources like fisheries and forests and groundwater.

“And we could disrupt the global climate.

…”What about resources? Our most crucial resource is petroleum. Production will decline, price will increase, we will have to make fundamentally different decisions about personal transport and the provision of food, which are currently predicated on the presumption of cheap transport.”

Professor Lowe anticipates the peak of oil production will occur in 2009, plus or minus a few years – indeed, it may have happened already. …
(no date, the speech was given in November, 2005)

A comprehensive speech on sustainability — first describing what it isn’t, then describing what it is. Professor Lowe covered similar ground in a 2001 paper: What would a sustainable city or community look like?

The conference at which the speech was delivered at a major center of futures studies, Tamkang University, which “has the largest number of students taking futures courses of any university in the world – about 6,000 of their 24,000 students each year.”

More on Lowe from the Brisbane Institute:

Ian Lowe is Honorary Professor of Science, Technology and Society at Griffith University and an adjunct professor at two other universities. His principal research interests are in the broad area of policy decisions influencing use of science and technology. He was Director of the Commission for the Future in 1988 and chaired the Australian government’s advisory council which produced the first independent national report on the state of the environment in 1996. He was named Australian Humanist of the Year in 1988 and gave the ABC Boyer Lectures in 1991. A regular columnist for New Scientist and various other publications, he has recently completed a term of office as President of Australian Science Communicators.