What’s So Green About Doing it Yourself? Ownership & Knowledge

Sami Grover, treehugger
Alex Steffen once declared that the revolution will not be handmade—but I’m thinking some of the equipment used in it may very well be. Now I am, by far, one of the least practical people I know, but i do like to try my hand at some DIY projects from backyard beekeeping to home composting to brewing my own beer. Nevertheless, I’ve been challenged before about these habits—after all, what’s so green about doing things yourself? Wouldn’t it be better to employ the economies of scale and efficiencies inherent in larger-scale production?

On the one hand, these detractors may have a point. Whether it’s the inefficiencies of cooking up 5 gallons of beer (and rinsing all those bottles), or driving to the garden center each time I need chicken food, there are certainly times when doing it yourself may involve more energy or resource use than a well-oiled industrial operation might employ. (For more on this type of argument, check out my post on whether industrial monoculture is the real path to sustainable farming.)

But then there are huge opportunities for efficiency, recycling, and reuse too. Whether it is building a chicken coop from reclaimed materials, or knowing exactly what ingredients you put in your bread, the do it yourself approach gives you—in theory at least—almost complete control over every aspect of the process. In beer brewing alone, I save emissions and waste on everything from reusing bottles, through using spent grains as chicken food, to not trucking beer (which is mostly water) around the country. I even save on not paying the store to needlessly store and refrigerate my beverage…

The Forest As Garden: Visions of Plenty

James Bannon, An Ecology of Home
The weather warmed up here this past week to an unseasonable fifty degrees. I took advantage of the warmth to open up the walls of our house where the addition will join it, put in the new structural members, and closed it back up again just in time for the cold to return. Now I’m back to cutting firewood and waiting for the forest ground to freeze solid so I can drag out the pine and spruce logs that will become rafters, purlins, and tie beams. The timbers are being logged from an area of about two acres inside an imaginary oval with our house in the middle. The portion of the oval just south and southeast of our house was cleared by the original owner eighteen years ago. Since then a scattering of paper and gray birches and quaking aspens have grown up. We’ve left most of these since we’ve been here for the pleasures and benefits they provide: shade, beauty, soft shaking music of wind-blown leaves, cover for birds and squirrels visiting the feeders we put out, and protection for the tree seedlings and saplings that will eventually take their place. We see our entire eight acres of forest as a garden; this part, just beyond our front door, is the most intensively cultivated. It is our version of a front yard. The canopy trees are mostly ones of our choosing, and with a couple exceptions are not native to our eastern forest: apples, pears, persimmons, medlars, plums, and a peach. We’ve left a couple red oak seedlings that some blue jay or squirrel buried and then forgot. Some time next decade they’ll begin providing mast for the wild turkey and deer that visit.This year I’m cutting out the small handful of aspens though. They’ve done their work as pioneer trees, helping prepare the ground for species that follow in succession, though in this case it is cultivated fruit trees rather than climax forest species that are taking their place. Next winter they’ll do their final work, providing the fuel to cook our meals and heat our house for a few weeks.

The agricultural tradition has left our culture with a strong preference for highly simplified landscapes. So the conventional arrangement for a collection of fruit trees is an orchard with grass and maybe some clover and wildflowers carpeting the ground. But our model is an ecological one, where some species or other exploits every available niche. So under and around the canopy of fruit trees, we have a layer of shrubs. Here almost all the selections are native to the eastern forest; most have delicious fruit too. Planted in clumps are highbush blueberries and elderberries and gooseberries and currants and serviceberries and hazelnuts and chokeberries and raspberries and beach plums and a highbush cranberry. A few of the blueberries were already present, as were the chokeberries and a scattering of wild raisins. We’ve left these last for the birds—we like the fruits too, but the birds clean them out before we get any. In the sunny patches and dappled shade among the trees and shrubs we’ve planted a varied layer of herbaceous perennials—some for food, others for adding nutrients to the soil and making compost, still others to attract insects and hummingbirds. Among these plants are borage and lovage, anise hyssop and lemon balm, catnip and comfrey, Jerusalem artichoke and yarrow, rhubarb and asparagus. Blank spots are filling in with ground covers of cranberry and lingonberry and alpine strawberry and clover and sorrel. Logs inoculated with mushroom spawn lie in shady spots beneath the fruit trees. Grape vines climb a long arbor. At one edge of the garden is a large fire ring I built for outdoor cooking. Friends join us there for dinners on summer weekends. Finally are the rock piles and logs scattered in strategic locations for snakes, salamanders, frogs, and other small critters. They belong in the garden too, and feed on slugs and other insects.

There are various prototypes for this type of forest garden, many in tropical climates, a few pioneering efforts in temperate zones, but I like the oldest one best: the Garden of Eden. Every culture has its own creation myth, and the one that served western culture for the roughly fifteen hundred years up to the middle of the nineteenth century, is found in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. In chapter two Eden is described as a place of effortless abundance, where every want is satisfied. “And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food.” The original garden was a garden of trees, a forest garden. Although the Old Testament was written down some time in the first millennium BC, some of its stories seem rooted in oral tradition that reach far into the past. So the story of Noah and the flood finds echoes in flood stories from cultures all over the world that most likely describe the truly epochal flooding that would have accompanied the end of the last ice age as sea levels surged. In similar fashion the story of Eden seems to preserve a very old folk memory of the world inhabited by hunter-gatherers, living off the natural abundance of the land.

…As go the forests, so go the animal and bird species that depend on them for habitat, and Britain is today impoverished in both. Impoverished too—or cursed as Genesis has it—were the peasant farmers who were yoked to an agricultural economy that wrought this destruction. Disease and famine were constant features of all the countries of Europe in the centuries before and just after the colonial enterprise began. The eminent French historian Fernand Braudel records no fewer than forty general famines (not counting the “hundreds and hundreds” of local famines) in France from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. And France serves as a stand-in for the continent: “The same could be said of any country in Europe,” he writes. (Under the heading Be Careful What You Wish For, it should be pointed out that the sickness, the starvation, the malnourishment, and the wholesale destruction of native flora and fauna—in short the impoverishment of a wide swath of the biota of England to the benefit of a handful of domesticated crops and animals—was the work of a culture of organic farming powered by energy from the wind, sun, water, and animals).

Farming came late to New England before European settlement, if it can truly be said to have arrived at all. A date of around 900 AD is generally accepted for corn cultivation in eastern North America, but in most places it formed only a part of a diverse diet of wild game, fish, fruit, herbs, and tubers. The small civilization centered at Cahokia was already in the past, and whatever urban culture de Soto encountered in the Southeast in the sixteenth century was gone by the seventeenth. In most of Maine corn cultivation never arrived at all until initiated by the English and French. The people of eastern North America had a woodland economy, as they had for about 10,000 years. That the various native tribes modified the forests to serve their own purposes there is no doubt. The forest was no pristine unpeopled wilderness, it was home to dozens of diverse but related tribal groups, the basis of an economy that provided wood for shelter, heat, cooking fuel and transportation; game, fruit, and vegetables for food; and shelter for defense and attack. That the early explorers and settlers were in awe of the abundance they encountered—fish, fowl, wood, and game all far exceeded what was commonly available in England, as the letters home from early settlers attest—points to the very different relationships between people and their native land in Europe and America. Speaking in broad terms, European farmers tended to obliterate their native landscapes, replacing species wholesale with domesticated, imported varieties of grains and animals that they attempted to isolate from the ecosystem as much as possible. The Native Americans of New England—hunters, gatherers, part-time gardeners—on the other hand, fully integrated their own lives with the local ecologies, modifying them to suit their own wants and needs, but avoiding wholesale destruction. The two modes of living, the two economies, are as distinct as the lives of Adam in Eden and after the fall. And if the interpretation of Genesis as a folk memory depicting the displacement of hunter/gatherers by full-time grain farmers is accurate, then that same displacement occurred in New England in the seventeenth century—as it must have all over the world at various times whenever farming spread into intact ecologies and the human economies they sustained. That the farmers ultimately won—the beneficiaries of disease and superior technologies for killing—is a matter of historical record. But which mode of life is actually preferable, or more tenable in the long run, is a matter of perspective and the assumptions from which conclusions are drawn.

The story that tells of farming as the first major step forward leading humanity out of the darkness and into the light of urban civilization, the refinements of high culture, democracy, industrialization, material comfort, and finally technological prowess, is well known. It’s our story, or at least the official one we most often tell ourselves about ourselves. But other stories fit the facts too: of a fall from grace perhaps. Or of a loss of connection with the rest of life; and of a loss of freedom, security, and equality that are among the features that many people find admirable in indigenous societies. Or of a long dark age of slavery, poverty, starvation, and warfare on a scale previously unimagined. Or perhaps the most depressing possibility of all: the story of a species that proves once and for all that an organism with a large brain and a capacity for tool use is an evolutionary dead end, the biological equivalent of a super virus or of a meteor crashing into the side of a planet…
(9 January 2011)

Post-Carbon Politics III: The Ends of Freedom

Erik Lindberg, Transition Milwaukee
In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle’s goal is to describe the ultimate end or telos of human behavior, something which, he argues, must be a good in and of itself rather than a means to another overarching good or desired end. Aristotle argues that the only thing that fits this description is Eudaemonia, roughly translated as “happiness” though with overtones of overall well-being: happiness, he explains, cannot be conceived of as the means to some greater good, but all other goods (such as freedom, having friends, or a well-ordered polis) can be seen as a means to happiness. Happiness, he writes, is “just such an end because we always choose it for itself and never for any other reason.”

Since the Enlightenment, however, Freedom has all but usurped “happiness” as the ultimate goal of human life. It is true that the quest for freedom may in some ways be subordinated to happiness, in that freedom is said to offer the most direct, and at some times the exclusive, path to happiness. But even when our very freedom, may, with its anxious uncertainties, interfere with the path to something like happiness, freedom as a goal nevertheless seems to reign supreme. A happiness won without a difficult transversal through the trials of freedom is not authentic happiness, and it is better, according to the post-Enlightenment consciousness, to meet a tragic fate in pursuit of freedom than to enjoy the safe comforts of servitude. Or as John Stuart Mill similarly noted, it is “better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

The virtually unquestioned ascendancy of freedom is visible even within the political and moral philosophies that have been most overtly suspicious of bourgeois freedoms and that have, at least in their crude manifestations, seemed willing to sacrifice freedom for some other greater good. I am thinking, here, most notably of Marxist and Nietzschean critiques of conventional freedom. For what is Marx railing against if not the crushing servitude in which capitalism enslaves the bourgeoisie and the proletariat alike? Is his ultimate goal not a world in which all are free from the distorting alienations of wage-labor, suffocating competition, and the abstraction of value from legitimate human needs? Motivating his critique is the belief that the undeniable liberties bestowed by capitalism are, in effect, technologies of mass enslavement masked by a cloak of inconsequential choices and illusory freedoms. The critique of freedom is thus made on behalf of a higher form of freedom, or something very similar to it. Indeed, in the modern world it is difficult to identify a position not committed in some way or another to individual expression or self-realization.

The one major exception—one which should give us great pause and convince us to proceed only with the greatest of caution and care when discussing freedom and its ends—is Fascism, fueled as it is with the ecstatic collapse of the self as it dissolves into the collective eros of the state. Here, individual differentiation, not to mention liberty and self-determination, are made subordinate to the higher goal of an aestheticized unity. Except in various short-lived cults, or in the variety of fleeting and temporary consumer experiences manufactured by the industrial marketing complex, fascism has been a rare manifestation of this truly radical reaction to the spirit of the age.

Subscribers to the theory of Peak Oil who are aware of the tectonic shift in consciousness and values, and thus politics, that it is likely to cause often predict that Peak Oil will mark a break with the past as radical as that caused by the “discovery” of the New World, The Enlightenment, or The Industrial Revolution. Standing as we are, then, on the cusp of an epochal shift, is it not then of value, (if not urgency) for us to reflect upon the concept of Freedom as the overriding value of the age we are leaving? If we have found ourselves at the moment where we in the industrialized West and especially in The United States will be forced to make our first awkward steps towards the rolling back of our traditional freedoms to use, have, and waste as much as we can afford, should we not be concerned whither freedom in this new age?…
(8 January 2011)

Earth System Science – the science of the whole Earth system
Roger M. Gifford, Will Steffen and John Finnigan, ABC News (Australia)
Tim Flannery’s recent interview with Robyn Williams on The Science Show has generated some interesting debate (and a little confusion) about the Gaia hypothesis (see editorials in The Daily Telegraph, and The Australian).

For most scientists working in the relatively new area of Earth System Science, talk of the earth “growing a brain” trivialises the growing body of knowledge about the functioning of the whole-earth system. Critically, it misses the point that changes are taking place to this system and that we must understand and monitor these changes for the sake of humanity’s continuing viable development and progress.

While the Gaia hypothesis, first popularised by British scientist James Lovelock as a metaphor of “the living Earth”, has been given religious overtones by some, most scientists, including Lovelock himself, do not assert that the Earth is “alive”. To observe that the earth has some self-regulating features that are similar to those found in living organisms is not to say that it is in fact a living being with a consciousness.

It is also important that the Gaia hypothesis is not confused with Earth System Science, which is in fact a major new development of formal science, embraced by CSIRO and many Australian universities and building on studies of global environmental change, environmental sustainability, economics, complex system science and more.

Earth System Science emphasises the interactions and feedbacks between changes in the earth’s various components – the atmosphere, the oceans, the land, the ice-caps and the biosphere comprising all living things – interactions which can fall through the cracks between traditional scientific disciplines. This is important because many of today’s human-induced changes to the earth’s environment are affecting each other and coalescing to become issues of major global concern.

Climate change, the future of energy and water resources, food production, and decline in biodiversity stand out as much discussed examples of such interacting processes that have a strongly global character.

A critical feature of Earth System Science is to recognise that human activities now form a major interactive part of the functioning and evolution of the entire planet. This is a significant departure from the past where humans have been studied separately from the environment around us. We have been regarded as villains impacting the planet’s natural systems, and victims suffering from the way the planet reacts, for example through changing climate.

This new approach means that the natural science of global environmental change must be linked with social science, economics and the humanities, that is, “global environmental change” must become “global change”.

It also means that the research encompassed by Earth System Science spreads beyond the traditional concerns of environmental sustainability to consider factors as diverse as the psychology of denial or the institutional and political arrangements that can lock societies into behaviours incompatible with long term societal aspirations on this finite planet.

Activity in Earth System Science is going through a growth spurt both in Australia and internationally. In December the Australian Academy of Science, with support from the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, ran the First Australian Earth System Outlook Conference. At this conference a decadal plan for the new science in Australia was launched by the Chief Scientist, Professor Penny Sackett: To Live within Earth’s Limits: An Australian Plan to Develop a Science of the Whole Earth System.

This document was four years in the making by the National Committee for Earth System Science. Overseas, the International Council for Science working with the International Council on Social Sciences, has just released a major document, based on an open web-based consultation, entitled: Grand Challenges for Global Sustainability Research. That document is providing the framework for a major revamping of the international global environmental change research programs, which have been running since the 1980s.

With these Australian and international programs getting under way in the coming year or two, we can anticipate a substantial increase in the information that science can bring to inform people, businesses and governments about the limits and opportunities that the earth provides for the growth, development and well-being of present and future generations.
(10 January 2011)
Sent in by EB reader Jon Summers. The link to the pdf is here.