Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Saturday, October 27, 2012


It seems the less time I get at the computer the more I want to say.  I hope it isn't always that way.  I hope I have enough computer time left in me to get what I want to say written down.  And I hope I have the good sense to print this stuff out on paper every so often, just in case I want to entertain myself with a reread one day, sitting under a big apple tree that I planted half a century earlier.  I had two other posts simmering in my head - one was a bit about powering down at a (socio)ecologically-adaptive rate, and the other a mildly-humorous lesson in permaculture zone and sector analysis - but, considering the timing, I thought I might take a jab at politics one more time real quick first.

No pictures today, I'm rushing head-long into cultural critic mode, so if you're not in the mood for novel, and I think enlightening, approaches to reorganizing history, cultural evolution, and a formal recognition of the "lumpenprole" as a political class, you might just skip it.  Anyone still with me at this point, let's go; I think you'll enjoy this.

From Wikipedia:

Arnold Toynbee argues that "self-determining" civilizations are born out of more primitive societies, not due to racial or environmental factors, but as a response to challenges, such as hard country, new ground, blows and pressures from other civilizations, and penalizations. He argues that for civilizations to be born, the challenge must be a golden mean; that excessive challenge will crush the civilization, and too little challenge will cause it to stagnate.

He argues that civilizations continue to grow only when they meet one challenge only to be met by another. In 1939 Toynbee wrote, "The challenge of being called upon to create a political world-order, the framework for an economic world-order... now confronts our Modern Western society." He argues that civilizations develop in different ways due to their different environments and different approaches to the challenges they face. He argues that growth is driven by "Creative Minorities": those who find solutions to the challenges, which others then follow.

It is this mimesis, this mimicry of heroes, that drives and solidifies any given culture.  When a young girl claims to be a Disney princess she is engaging in mimesis, a not-altogether-make-believe mimicry that defines her future expectations based on cultural convention.  But adults do it too, all the time.  Toynbee suggests that our culture, Western Christian Civilization, was birthed around 1000 CE in western Europe and spread throughout the world by the European diaspora of nations in North America and Australasia.  Where his analysis departs from typical historical analysis is that it doesn't consider cultural genesis, growth, decay, and death from the perspective of political or economic order, but rather from the perspective of a uniting worldview.  In other words, we are less "United States" or "representative democracy" than we are "Western Christian."  Toynbee identifies (precariously, I'll admit) 23 distinct cultures over the course of human history, each with its own unique worldview - Islamic, Hindu, Mexican, Eastern Orthodox, Hellenic, Persian, Egyptian, Sinic, etc, etc - along with a few abortive civilizations (e.g. Scandanavian, Syrian) and a handful of arrested civilizations (e.g. Polynesian, Eskimo).  The name of the hip-hop group 'Arrested Development' illustrates this idea nicely: a big chunk of the long term development of black western African culture was "arrested" when it was kidnapped by Western Civilization during the slave trade, something to which, understandably, the historically-literate black leadership does its best to return its people's attention. 

I've also heard our Western Christian culture called "Faustian," though I'm not at all sure who it was that made the deal with the devil.

This so-called Creative Minority inspires a large following out of the stagnation and decay of the previous culture - just as Christianity and Judaism collected global followings from the ruins of the Roman Empire - and, after generations of mimesis, solidifies into the Dominant Minority that controls the political and cultural discussion within that society.  Again from Wikipedia:

[Toynbee] argues that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the physical environment, over the human environment, or by attacks from outside. Rather, it comes from the deterioration of the "Creative Minority," which eventually ceases to be creative and degenerates into merely a "Dominant Minority" (who forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience). [Obamacare?]  He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their "former self," by which they become prideful, and fail to adequately address the next challenge they face.

It is largely this phenomenon that drives politics in the West today, and the idea that inspired the title of this post.  "Republican" and "Democrat" are terms that identify slightly different people of basically identical cultural persuasions.  Neither party is even talking about the real challenges we face in Election 2012, much less "adequately addressing" them.  In my opinion this is at least partially due to career politicians; the mere mention of our "non-negotiable" way of life within the context of constraining physical limits to that non-negotiability would be political suicide.  On the other hand, a Georgia farmer, who has spent his life with his nose to the wind, and serving a brief two year stretch in the Senate in DC at the urging of his neighbors, would be far more likely to bring up hard issues since his future is waiting for him back on the farm in Georgia, and not in the possibilities of a cabinet position with the next administration.  This is likely one of the most dangerous factors in our current predicament, and one of the biggest reasons why paying attention to the "official story" can be hazardous to your health.

Contrary to the acquiescence in the first italicized sentence above, the decay of our particular culture - which has really become the Western Christian Petro-Culture over the last few centuries - is being compounded by physical limits to our culture's resource and energy base, its operations budget.  Limits like peak phosphorus, peak fresh water, peak oil, peak everything that has come to define us as a society.  Many people think that advanced technology - in farming, information sharing, natural disaster mitigation, etc - is an asset in our particular case; in reality it is likely to be our Achilles heel, and a factor that makes our demise so much more "interesting" than the ones before us.  Still, even without this (massive) extenuating circumstance, the deterioration of Western Civilization is already well underway, and for exactly the reason Toynbee outlines.

He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a "universal state", which stifles political creativity within the existing social order. Toynbee writes:
"First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force—against all right and reason—a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation—and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands."
Toynbee developed his concept of an "internal proletariat" and an "external proletariat" to describe quite different opposition groups within and outside the frontiers of a civilization. These groups, however, find themselves bound to the fate of the civilization.[3] During its decline and disintegration, they are increasingly disenfranchised or alienated, and thus lose their immediate sense of loyalty or of obligation. Nonetheless an "internal proletariat" may form a "universal church" which survives the civilization's demise.[4]

The "universal state" Toynbee refers to contains both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, as well as any and all of their cohorts and appointees, and if one of them tries to get uppity and bring up politically-awkward subjects, like peak oil and total and permanent energy contraction, he will be dealt with swiftly, I can promise you.  That will be the guy you want to vote for.  I am not suggesting conspiracy; I am merely suggesting that the ruling political class has inbred to the point of unrecognized dogmatic behavior, or "stifled political creativity within the existing social order."  Which is totally understandable after a thousand years...

The "internal proletariat," or, as an online acquaintance who calls himself 'Bustin J' more colorfully terms "the lumpenprole," has been on the rise since at least the economic crisis of the 1890s, when Toynbee was beginning his analysis, but has swelled significantly since the manufacturing job sell-off of the 1970s which created the Rust Belt, and is picking up steam at an accelerating pace since peak economy in 2007.  The "external proletariat" includes just about everyone who isn't a member of the industrial world, and probably plenty who are, including most of the enormous Chinese population enslaved in American sweatshops for the past few decades.  As the operations budget of the industrial world continues to disintegrate, the internal proletariat will make common cause with the external, and the death spiral of Western Civilization will become genuinely irreversible.

Toynbee argues that as civilizations decay, there is a "schism" within the body politic. In this environment of discord, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, e.g., by following a new religion). From among members of an "internal proletariat" who transcend the social decay a "church" may arise. Such an association would contain new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form. Toynbee here uses of the word "church" in a general sense, e.g., to refer to a collective spiritual bond found in common worship, or the unity found in an agreed social order.

Toynbee's thoughts here are easy enough to see in our current situation.  "Idealization of the past" accounts for the TEA party, and all the rest of the flag-waving jingoistic nostalgia that permeates our country today.  I can't even count the number of times I've heard local business owners say something to the effect of "I wish things would just go back to the way they were."  Business owners be warned: adapt to emerging ecological realities or perish.  "Idealization of the future" accounts for the preponderance of "green tech" folks out there, pining for a day when we can zip around the world in millions (billions?) of electric cars and planes, free from the guilt of burning fossil fuels to run our economy.  Which is of course a malanalyzed zeitgeist pipe dream.  Want to have a smaller automobile impact on the environment?  Drive less.  And detachment?  Sports.  New technologies.  Pop music.  Remind me who Jennifer Aniston is married to again?  Nah, never mind.  It'll be someone else tomorrow.  And finally, transcendence?  Vanishingly rare in our world.  The relatively tiny permaculture, natural building, economic relocalization, and appropriate tech movements are about all that come to mind.

Lest anyone find the idea of permaculture as an emerging "church" too heretical, even within Toynbee's definition, I would invite you to compare the garden variety (hehe) permacultural life with the teachings of the Bible.  Every permaculture site on planet Earth is a corrolary of both the Garden of Eden and Noah's ark, and its inhabitants more ethical, in objective terms, than just about any religeuse I've ever run into.  Just about any;)  Blind faith and church attendence alone don't make a person ethical.  To my mind, it's not out of the realm of possibility that the combined emerging "ecotechnic" package might fit Toynbee's concept of a "universal church" rising from the ashes of Western Civilization.  Whether that emerging "creative minority" contains within it the teachings of the Christian church or not will, like everything in permaculture, be site specific!  There is certainly nothing in the teachings of permaculture to prevent it, and I know plenty of permies who possess a religious bent.

However, one belief structure that might be more ubiquitous in the permacultural community is the understanding that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is offering anything of value to the most important discussions of our age.  And on that note I confess that, in a week or so, I will only be voting for new leadership up to the governor's office, which I expect to have an actual impact on my life for some time to come yet.  We can no longer afford an imperial government, whether that government understands that reality or not; and asking career politicians to comprehend their own demise is probably a bit of a stretch anyway.  Like Amendment One on Georgia's ballot, what's the point of voting in favor of things we can't afford??  Boycott has always been a more powerful strategy.

And it's not like the lumpenprole of 20-some-odd human civilizations have ever asked the dominant minority's permission to be inspired by novel ideas...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Pot au Feu - Winter is Approaching

Check out the new wide plank pine floor we laid in September.  It feels so much better underfoot than the old 2x6 decking ever did.  A lot warmer too...oh, and fewer scorpions paying us a visit through the cracks in the floor.
We moved to the lower Appalachian bioregion to escape the hot summers of south and middle Georgia.  This was our second summer without air conditioning, and the mountain climate made it a lot more tolerable than it was in Tifton last year.  We had a four-day stretch in late June with 100+ temps, rare for this region, which made AC-free living a bit miserable, but then, did I mention it was only four days?  Besides, my mother came for a visit at just the right time, bless her soul, and kept the children at the hotel with her.  We basically took those four days off, ate, drank, and watched TV in the air-co, and cooled our heels in the hotel pool.  Other than that, days were warm and busy, and nights quite pleasant.  It was the rare dawn that didn't have us all under the comforter.

But it IS the mountains, and cooler summers are generally followed by cooler winters, so when September rolled around we knew it was time to start preparing the tent for winter.  Closing up the floor and installing the wood stove were the first items on our to-do list.

First we moved the east side of the house to the west side, rolled out an overlapping layer of red rosin paper, then laid a 3/4 inch thick, 10" wide pine plank floor sourced from our bioregion. 

Then we slid everything back to the east side and did the same for the west half.  Thank you sister Julie for your assistance on this day!  What a mess!

Next we laid a tile hearth and installed a small cast-iron wood stove.  You can see that I've lined it with fire brick on the stove floor to add some thermal mass and make it a little cooler underneath.

With the house in disarray, we ate out too much during these 4 days, but as these baskets show, the garden and forest kept offering their bounty nonetheless.  In the right basket is about 3 pounds of September chanterelles (Cantherellus cibarius and C. lateritius) and another pound of hedgehogs (Hydnum repandum).  We ate what we could and sold the rest at the farmers market for $10/pint, about $30/lb.

About this time we also ran out of the lard stash we brought north with us, so it was time to render another round.  This is fat from pastured pork produced by Mountain Valley Farm, which is less than 8 miles from our place.  Even this good stuff is very cheap; I think we paid 40 cents a pound maybe, bartered for our herbal products.

In September we also got our rabbit operation moving again.  The old triplex tractor is no longer sad and vacant.  We have three New Zealands, two does - Clover and Helena Handbasket, who has partially lop "helicopter" ears, as my dad calls them - and a buck named Br'er Fox in Socks, after a couple of favorite children's stories.  Fox chewed his way out one day and picked up a tick that paralyzed his back legs, but a steady regimen of comfrey, self-heal, yarrow, and sassafras has him on the mend.  I think we're just about ready to breed now.
And ready to add some delicious rabbit meat to that pot au feu the title alludes to!  It's been chilly the last few days, and we've been transitioning to cooking on the wood stove inside full time.  The process of cooking a meal from start to finish on wood is slow, very slow, but it doesn't need to be watched all that closely - nothing ever burns - and the taste!!  My god, the food is incredible.  "Pot au feu", for those who don't know, is a traditional French dish, usually based on a cut of beef that requires extended cooking.  What makes it stand out is the fact that it is usually left on the stove and added to for several days, developing a complexity of flavor that peaks around the 3rd or 4th day.  Our first pot au feu is on the stove now, based on some local apple-wood-smoked beef kielbasa we got from Riverview Farms, instead of beef roast.  We started with the "holy trinity" - onions, carrots, and celery - in butter, then added the sausage about an hour later, then chicken stock from the pantry another hour later, along with barley and navy beans.  Another three-ish hours and that new pine floor was covered with the drool of four desperately hungry slow food junkies.  What an aroma!  And taste to match. 

In our admittedly limited experience, extended cooking in cast iron over fire tends to pull a dash of flavor from every meal previously cooked in that vessel.  The night before we started the pot au feu, we slow-cooked (as if there were a choice;) sweet peppers, onions, and Italian sausage for dinner.  We swore we could taste hints of French toast, bacon, chanterelles, and grilled tomato, basil, and cheddar sandwiches, all combining to make an amazing, close-your-eyes-and-moan kind of dish.  We gave up the microwave 4 years ago, then the toaster, the electric range this past spring, and now my wife is talking about down-grading the propane stove to bathwater- and dishwater-heating duty only. 

Won't wood be hot for summer cooking, dear?  We'll figure it out, she says...and I believe her.  And the best part is, she's really into this wood stove cooking, taking on a significant portion of the fire tending in the process.  Which I'm totally OK with;o)

Yeah, we sure are missing all those modern conveniences!  Wow, we should have done this sooner.   Wood stove cooking will be a permanent fixture in our household from now on, whatever happens to the world around us, and open hearth cooking is no doubt on the horizon, once we have a nice big fireplace with wrought-iron boom, in some future kitchen.

Soon on the list for our home comfort is the possibility of excavating under the tent platform and loading up 10-20 yards of wood chip mulch in the 16'x20' space below.  I'm thinking that if we enclose the deck with some sort of skirt, buried slightly in the soil below, around the mass of composting forest waste, that the heat of decomposition might be able to keep that new pine floor toasty warm, and reduce our need for constant fire in the fall and spring.

My wife is obviously questioning the need to go to all that trouble...

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

No Country For Energy Descent

They say that a prophet is never loved in his own country.  Taken to its logical conclusion, that must mean that he's despised by his own family.  I am not a prophet - no Galileo in these halls - but I am doing my best to pay attention to and practice the advice of the real prophets, folks like John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg, and Dmitry Orlov.  Oh, and that guy Kunstler, too.  He's a rabble rouser, and my participation in his comments section has always been as a permacultural voice of reason and patience.  As it turns out, however, simply giving credence to the (ostensibly false) prophets is enough to get you tarred and feathered, at least by the people who are supposed to love you the most.

I had a day like that on Sunday.  I worked my normal farmers market in Grant Park (Atlanta) until 2 pm or so, then retired to what has very happily become a Sunday lunch ritual with my paternal grandmother and her husband of 30+ years.  For anonymity's sake, let's call him Jow, pronounced just like Joe, but different of course. 

So I walked into the house after the market, and he pounced - no hello, no how'd it go, just "do you know what the Dow Jones Industrial Average is?" 

"What is it?" I asked, fishing for a numerical value in the 13,000-14,000 range, potentially a little lower if all was going right. 

"It's a measure of the economy's strength, and it's driven by consumption," was the response.  If I'm not mistaken I think it was followed by the term 'dumbass'. 

"No, I meant what is the Dow Jones' value that has gotten you so worked up?"

"Seven hundred," he responded.

Now for those of us who actually keep up with these things, that was intense news.  I don't believe that "the Dow" is  anything more than a mechanism for making ordinary people think that they are important, or at least informed, to keep them invested, that it actually represents something meaningful to "Joe Six-pack."  Or to Joe beach-house-owner for that matter.   That's where they get you.  They make you think that since you own a handful of properties and equities the Dow DOES mean something to you, even if it doesn't to lowly Joe Six-pack (who is obviously a desperate alcoholic and despotic child abuser).  And for the moment it might.  Play it for what it's worth.  You don't owe "them" anything.  Take what you can.  It's the American way after all.  (Tongue planted firmly in cheek.)

"Seven hundred?" I asked, dumbfounded.  "That IS news.  Tell me more."

"It's people like you, 21st century hippies, that unplug from the economy that are bringing it down."

"Really?  So I'm a dumb-ass AND omnipotent?" I replied snarkily.

I won't bore you with the rest of the "discussion."  It basically boiled down to "they will fix it, while ideologues like you fiddle while Rome burns."

Fiddle while Rome burns?  You think it's easy to live the way we do?  Every simple action of our day-to-day life takes 4 times as long (at least) as it did with cheap fossil fuels at our disposal.  I'd be glad to trade places with you, and let you show me how to play that fiddle.  But then, you didn't leave us that option, did you?  Not that I'm blaming you.  Roles reversed, we would have done the same thing to you.  Unknowingly, of course, just like you did.  It's no one's fault.  Energy drives activity for humans, just like it does for yeasts, oaks, and rhinos.  And there is nothing Obama, or Romney, or Ron Paul can do about it.  The solutions they are banking on are aimed at sustaining the unsustainable, even Mr. Paul's.  The other two are just corporate derivatives.  Maybe Obamacare would have worked in 1930, financially if not socially, when we were getting a 100:1 return on our energy investment, and could subsidize such foolishness, but in 2012, when global oil returns are in the neighborhood of 15:1, this idea is obtuse at best.  Can't afford "health" insurance?  No problem, we'll just fine you more money you can't afford until you can.  Makes sense, right?

Never mind that I make my living making, selling, and promoting the kind of accessible, democratic medicine that the people have used for oh, 100,000 years or so.  The kind of medicine that will sustain our species for the rest of its tenure on Earth after toxic industrial medicine is long gone.  The kind of medicine that poses such a threat to swollen, over-cooked allopathic medicine that the latter feels like it needs to formally demonize such harmless constituents as comfrey and sassafrass, prohibiting the future from knowing effective, non-toxic skin and bone repair, oh, and real root beer taste.  Surely lab-created corporate substitutes are just as good.  (Tongue, cheek, yes?)

Good.  Western medicine has its place.  They do triage like no other.  Surgery?  Check!  We got that.  But health?  Nah.  Eighty percent or so of the problems for which we prescribe drugs could be handled with the whole plants that are still, to this day, largely the basis of the overly-specialized industrial medicine in question.  When pills are given credence where greens are not, something has gone terribly wrong. When we promote televised opinions over first-hand observation of the world around us, calling people ignorant for not watching the boob tube more closely, we have officially lost our marbles.  That's what this year (and Sunday afternoon in particular) has been like for me.  And everyone is saying these things!  Even the smart people.  That's how I know things are in a dismal state of affairs.  There is very little first-hand thought anymore, even among the intelligent classes.  Even among those who pretend to not pay attention to the mainstream.  Make a comment at any blog on my list and I'll probably be able to tell you if you watch TV or not...and it won't be because you sound so much more informed than the ones who don't, I'm afraid.

Show me prescient systems thinking and you'll be showing me someone who's most likely not watching TV, not reading the newspaper, and not praying for the stock market to recover.  You'll be showing me someone who is probably trying to find their way back to the Garden, where humans belong.  But talking about it with people who think they're informed because they watch TV and read Consumer Reports is a very bad idea...