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Plant trees, disband the army, work together: the Tuscan way of surviving collapse

Ugo Bardi, Transition Culture
Ugo Bardi is a Professor at the Dipartimento di Chimica at Università di Firenze in Italy, and is also President of ASPO Italy, who so ably hosted ASPO5 in Pisa earlier this year. In this article, Ugo delves back into the history of his region of Italy, Tuscany, and identifies strategies and lessons of relevance to societies in their attempts to respond to peak oil. – Rob Hopkins

Tuscan scene …But not all societies collapse so completely [as the Roman Empire]. There are cases in which a society manages to contain decline and to keep its structure, its traditions, and its way of life. One may be the decline of Tuscany after the great expansion of the Renaissance, a case that had many points in common with the fall of the Roman Empire, but which was not so abrupt and devastating. Centuries of history are a complex story to summarize in a few pages but, as a Tuscan, I think I can at least sketch the main elements of what happened in Tuscany after the start of the decline, around the end of the 16th century. From this story, perhaps we can learn something useful for us today.

…Can Tuscany be sees as a model of “soft collapse? for other regions of the world? Perhaps; at least it gives us a recipe that worked. We may summarize it as three rules from the history of Tuscany of the time of the Grand Dukes:

1. Plant trees
2. Disband the army
3. Work together

It doesn’t seem that the world is exactly following these rules, right now. But we may have to learn.
(11 Dec 2006)

The Age of Mammals
Looking Back on the First Quarter of the Twenty-First Century

Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch
I’ve been writing the year-end other-news summary for Tomdispatch since 2004; somewhere around 2017, however, the formula of digging up overlooked stories and grounds for hope grew weary. So for this year, we’ve decided instead to look back on the last 25 years of the twenty-first century — but it was creatures from sixty million years ago who reminded me how to do it.

…That’s exactly why mainstream journalists spent the first decade of this century debating the meaning of the obvious binaries — the Democrats versus the Republicans, McWorld versus Global Jihad — much as political debate of the early 1770s might have focused on whether the French or English monarch would have supremacy in North America, not long before the former was be beheaded and the latter evicted. The monarchs in all their splashy scale were the dinosaurs of their day, and the eighteenth-century mammal no one noticed at first was named “revolution”; the early twenty-first century version might have been called “localism” or maybe “anarchism,” or even “civil society regnant.” In some strange way, it turned out that windmill-builders were more important than the U.S. Senate. They were certainly better at preparing for the future anyway.

That mammal clinging to the stalk had crawled up from the grassroots where the choices were so much more basic and significant than, for instance, the one between fundamentalism and consumerism that was on everyone’s lips in the years of the Younger George Bush. If the twentieth century was the age of dinosaurs — of General Motors and the Soviet Union, of McDonald’s, globalized entertainment networks, and information superhighways — the twenty-first has increasingly turned out to be the age of the small.

You can see it in the countless local-economy projects — wind-power stations, farmer’s markets, local enviro organizations, food coops — that were already proliferating, hardly noticed, by the time the Saudi Oil Wars swept the whole Middle East, damaging major oil fields, and bringing on the Great Gasoline Crisis of 2009. That was the one that didn’t just send prices skyrocketing, but actually becalmed the globe-roaming container ships with their great steel-box-loads of bottled water, sweatshop garments, and other gratuitous commodities.

The resulting food crisis of the early years of the second decade of the century, which laid big-petroleum-style farming low, suddenly elevated the status of peasant immigrants from what was then called “the undeveloped world,” particularly Mexico and Southeast Asia. They taught the less agriculturally skilled, in suddenly greening North American cities, to cultivate the victory gardens that mitigated the widespread famines then beginning to sweep the planet. (It also turned out that the unwieldy and decadent SUVs of the millennium made great ecological sense, but only if you parked them facing south, put in sunroofs and used the high-windowed structures as seed-starter greenhouses.) The crisis spelled an end to the epidemic of American obesity, both by cutting calories and obliging so many Americans to actually move around on foot and bike and work with their hands.
(19 Dec 2006)
Also posted at Common Ground.

The price of money – selfishness
Dr. Christian Jarrett, The British Psychology Society Digest
A series of experiments have shown that merely thinking about or looking at money changes the way people behave, causing them to be more selfish and self-sufficient.
(5 Dec 2006)
Interesting study. Note that ‘self-sufficient’ in this context has a very different implication than when employed by back-to-the-land advocates — in fact the two definitions are almost at extremes. The article is referring to relying on money rather than social relations to get by, which for most of us means using a specialised skill to obtain a salary. So really there’s a total dependency on the reliable functioning of the economic system, and that’s hardly ‘self-sufficient’. The more common use of the phrase implies using land and resources productively, which requires a broad range of skills. As most of people within the movement merely aim towards this type of self-sufficiency rather than truly expect or want to achieve it — it also involves very good social relations in order to trade and gain assistance outside of the monetary economy.

Hurtling Through History at the Speed of Enlightenment

William Grimes, NY Times
Review of “Civilization: A New History of the Western World” by Roger Osborne

…“Civilization” is not a recitation of greatest hits, or a checklist of events and dates. Mr. Osborne, with great skill, ties his disparate topics together into a coherent narrative, as absorbing as any novel, with felicitous turns of phrase, and tidy summations, on virtually every page. .

…Mr. Osborne has profound doubts about his subject. His title might well have been followed by a question mark. At every point along the familiar trail of artistic achievement, scientific breakthrough and economic transformation, he stops to probe, often painfully, and to ask awkward questions.

…Mr. Osborne sees Western history as a series of transformations – social, philosophical and economic – that impel citizens rich and poor to look for new ways of organizing their world, the better to serve new desires and needs. His sympathies lie with the common folk, and with the pre-industrial past.

… most of the developments since the Industrial Revolution have, in Mr. Osborne’s view, led to stratified, intolerant, self-obsessed, materialistic societies dominated by corporations and, in their relations with the rest of the world, intent on imposing alien Western ideas like the nation state.

…Whew. Only at the end of the book does it become clear that Mr. Osborne has been engaged in a very strange project. While painstakingly reconstructing the imposing, intricate edifice of Western civilization, he has planted a series of explosive charges. And then, when the job is done, he lights the fuses and watches as the entire thing collapses into dust.
(7 Dec 2006)

The Evolutionary Roots of Our Environmental Problems: Toward a Darwinian Ecology
Dustin J. Penn, The Quarterly Review of Biology
It is widely acknowledged that we need to stabilize population growth and reduce our environmental impact; however, there is little consensus about how we might achieve these changes. Here I show how evolutionary analyses of human behavior provide important, though generally ignored, insights into our environmental problems.

First, I review increasing evidence that Homo sapiens has a long history of causing ecological problems. This means that, contrary to popular belief, our species’ capacity for ecological destruction is not simply due to “Western” culture.

Second, I provide an overview of how evolutionary research can help to understand why humans are ecologically destructive, including the reasons why people often overpopulate, overconsume, exhaust common-pool resources, discount the future, and respond maladaptively to modern environmental hazards. Evolutionary approaches not only explain our darker sides, they also provide insights into why people cherish plants and animals and often support environmental and conservation efforts (e.g., Wilson’s “biophilia hypothesis”).

Third, I show how evolutionary analyses of human behavior offer practical implications for environmental policy, education, and activism. I suggest that education is necessary but insufficient because people also need incentives. Individual incentives are likely to be the most effective, but these include much more than narrow economic interests (e.g., they include one’s reputation in society). Moralizing and other forms of social pressure used by environmentalists to bring about change appear to be effective, but this idea needs more research.

Finally, I suggest that integrating evolutionary perspectives into the environmental sciences will help to break down the artificial barriers that continue to divide the biological and social sciences, which unfortunately obstruct our ability to understand ourselves and effectively address our environmental problems.
(Sept 2003)