Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Monday, July 29, 2013

Reply To Steve Carrow About My "Experience"

Did I miss something? Before you turn back to rational permaculture topics, are you going to share what the brush with the world beyond the [veil] was? -Steve Carrow

[This started out as a reply in the comments section of the previous post but, as you can see, quickly became its own post.]

Hey, Steve.  I guess different people have all sorts of different triggers for experiences like mine, but it's the results of that experience that seem to validate it more than the actual trigger - what a born-again might refer to as the "fruit."  I suppose that's why I spent all my time talking about how it changed me instead of talking about what actually happened. 

It's kind of mundane really.  I was watching a YouTube interview with permaculture co-originator (his own terms) David Holmgren, talking about his new book "Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability" when it hit me.  David was talking about how aggressive pioneer "weeds" will capture and occupy a disturbed site, forming a monoculture or restricted oligoculture, and remain until the site's energy resources begin to decline.  At that point the stranglehold of the dominant population becomes maladaptive, and increasing biodiversity and cooperative relationships begin to emerge in an effort to more effectively utilize a declining energy base.

The parallels between that weedlot community David was talking about and human cultures on Earth hit me across the head like a 2x4.  All of a sudden I recognized the gravity of global energy peak and what it would mean for our species.  I saw colonial Eurasian farming culture (us) for the aggressive, (to borrow ecological jargon) r-selected, pioneer monoculture that it is, and energy descent as the very beginning of our people's return to a more normal, more reverent, mixed-strategy existence.  And probably the emergence of a new, far more spiritual, far less material, ecological culture.

[To define the disturbance that lead to the aggressive mental monoculture currently in existence, I would place the initial disturbance on the doorstep of agriculture, roughly 10,000 years ago, and a much greater disturbance on the shoulders of the fossil fuel era, which encompasses roughly the last 300 years.  Eurasian farming culture simply multiplied its initial agricultural disturbance when it figured out how to harness the awesome power embodied in fossil fuels.]

But suddenly my anger toward our exploitative, extractive (and ultimately suicidal) economic mode subsided, not because I was suddenly OK with it, but because I knew it wasn't going to last forever.  Couldn't last forever.  I knew that our Earth would begin to recover now, and that humans, being part of the Earth, would too.  That's the real silver lining of energy descent!

[Like every other liberal "progressive" I formerly believed in fantasies like "free energy," "weightless economies," and a soon-to-be-generally-affluent-if-we-could-just-get-those-other-idiots-out-of-the-way global culture, but the systems thinker in me subconsciously knew that that wasn't going to turn out well.  It caused me a lot of anguish.  The recognition of peak oil and subsequent energy descent as an inevitability was really a huge sigh of relief...]  

Being an ecologist I had a decent mental grasp of how very differently populations tend to behave in a contracting energy scenario than they do in an expansionary one, and realized suddenly that the behavior of the average Westerner was eventually going to be altered, and probably altered radically, in favor of a more permanent, (to continue the ecology lingo) K-selected culture.  A permanent culture.  Permaculture.

Oil being what it is to us, the industrial world that is, and the U.S. particularly, peak oil meant that humankind's expansionary phase was coming to a close.  It meant that our inertia toward one world order (controlled by us, the aggressive monoculture) was about to make a U-turn.  In other words, peak oil equaled peak exploitation, of the Earth, of other people, and of ourselves.  And that understanding changed me deeply.  I consider my experience to be a full-on mental paradigm shift.  Whether it constitutes a brush with the "sacred" is certainly debatable, but I've never experienced anything like it, nor heard more than a handful of stories that could compare.  Among Westerners in particular they seem vanishingly rare.

Everything I started predicting 5 years ago, based on this new revelation, is coming true.  I predicted that food would get perpetually more expensive as average real wages continued to decline in tandem, and it has, as they have.  I predicted that more and more affluent industrial people would be gardening and keeping small livestock every year from now on, and they have done both, with gusto.  I predicted that specialization would begin to decline and that the return of the generalist was at hand, that herbal medicine would start to regain its former prominence as the desirability and efficacy of allopathic chemical medicine came increasingly into question.  On and on.  All of which is the case today.  Just look at how much energy the dominant culture is investing in maintaining the status quo!  Since then I've read lots of similar opinions and of course tend to gravitate toward them - the writings of John Michael Greer, Richard Heinberg, Masanobu Fukuoka, Toby Hemenway, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison of course, cyclical historians Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, Colin Campbell, Ianto Evans, etc.

And now Stephen Harrod Buhner's writing on indigenous herbalism is altering my perception profoundly once again.  Maybe we'll have this talk again one day!  I hope that answers your question well enough because a lot of this is fairly hard to articulate, but thanks for that little stroll down good memory lane...cheers.

And now, back to permaculture...


  1. Sorry I haven't commented in awhile. It's been quit a summer. My best friends, who advise me in all things "country" decided to move to Idaho. So, it's been a round of helping them prepare for the big auction, farm sitting when they were going back and fourth, helping them pack, etc. They left monday. They will be missed. Among other things, they helped me build my chicken house (or, truth be told, I helped them :-) ) I've got a small flock (7) of Barnevelder.

    To the post at hand. William James in his 1901 "Varieties of Religious Experience" had a lot of things to say about shifts in belief systems. Be warned. It was slow going. His book in one hand and a dictionary in the other.

    Having a nodding acquaintance with 12 Step Programs, it seems to me that there are different kinds of rearrangements in thinking. There is the "Spiritual Experience" (aka The Burning Bush :-) ) . Never had one of those. More common, I think, is the "Moment of Clarity." When a new way of thinking hits you like a ton of bricks.

    Probably related is "sea change." Never found a satisfying definition for that one. Then there's those moments where the whole world seems to tilt and slide toward the wall. Had one of those when I picked up a newspaper and read about the Kent State shootings. I think, as far as my interest in living a more sustainable kind of life, it probably began, for me, sitting in a gas line in Southern California in 1973. I saw horrible things in those lines.

    A comment on a couple of posts, ago. Fermentation. I just finished Michael Pollan's (The Omnivore's Dilemma) new book, "Cooked; A Natural History of Transformation." He has a large section on different kinds of fermentation and Sandor Katz figures large.

  2. Ha! I was gone a week working on our farm, and when I got back to scan my usual permaculture sites, was not expecting to see my name in the heading of a post. As far as numinous experiences, the only one I've had was too embarrassing to recount here, but as Lewis says, the "mental shift" can be experienced in a whole spectrum of intensity. Regarding the specific path towards a more sustainable and intentional life, I've read a lot of books along the way. Some were jolting, some gave me whole new perspective on the human condition. I'm moving more and more toward action, and the books I'm reading now are specific,like animal rearing and homesteading skills books. Holmgren was definitely one of those conceptual books that impacted me, and I will reread again, it was so dense with insights I need time to digest. Paul Hawken, Al Gore ( don't laugh, he may be hypocritical, but Earth in the Balance got to me)Pollan, Leopold, Abbey, McKibben, Berry, a few more inspirational or provocative writers slowly got me to take the red pill and ( soon now!) leave the matrix. JM Greer is the one I read now to keep me from getting complacent and thinking that I "get it" fully.

  3. Howdy, LLB! "Moment of Clarity" is probably as good a way as any to describe my experience, although what I gleaned from it wouldn't jibe with a lot of folks out there. For starters, it's overtly evolution-based, which would negate its value out-of-hand to any creationist, regardless of how insane many of the specific things they believe in appear to be. Noah's flood, the virgin birth, walking on water, etc, all require a suspension of disbelief that is just too much for me in my current mental framework. [Not to mention that they've been waiting for over 2000 years for their guru to come back, which just seems sad to me.] Yet start pointing out measurable patterns in the visible world, major tide shifts like peak oil for instance, and the inevitable energy descent that will follow, and suddenly YOU are the crackpot, worthy of committing to a mental institution!

    I take a lot of solace in the fact that my epiphany actually CHANGED my worldview, and changed it pretty radically. All too often it seems to me that "salvation" experiences merely work to enforce what the receiver already believed. That was definitely not the case for me...

  4. Hey, Steve. You mention some other great authors for this path as well! Michael Pollan has certainly been a big influence on me; I've read all but the most recent, and particularly like "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "The Botany of Desire." Eric Weiner's "The Geography of Bliss" was another one that got stuck in my craw along the way. McKibben I want to read; Wendell Berry for sure, I like him a lot, the old Kentucky farmer/philosopher. The Holmgren book on the table is intense for sure; just starting a reread on it, too. Lots to chew on there, including some spiritual chat (from a self-described atheist no less) that has offended other permies (like Toby Hemenway).

    The reason I think this sort of topic is intentionally skirted in most permaculture circles is because it is very personal, impossible to really describe, and meaningful only to the one experiencing it. At least in our culture. Too often someone's first exposure to permaculture is a YouTube video of a group of hippies dancing hippie dances and singing hippie songs, talking about how the Earth needs spiritual healing. Which is all fine and good, and a normal outpouring of permaculture practice, as far as I can tell, but it doesn't need to be what greets newcomers at the door...

    Maybe people looking for those circles will find permaculture along their path, but a lot fewer will if that's what leads the discussion. Glad I finally talked about this, after 3 1/2 years of blogging about it, though, and now we can get on down the road of useful solutions to our predicament. And I agree that John Michael Greer's "house" is as good a place as any to sit and study. Thanks again for asking, and contributing.

  5. 'A permanent culture', nope. Nothing is permanent. As far as CPI/ Inflation goes, inflation is rampant and due to printing of paper money, something that Obama excels at.
    Food prices have been increasing since long before I started eating, way back half a century ago.
    With TARP, things look like a cataclysm.

  6. Kevin, perhaps the ecology term "K-selected" culture is more appropriate - a lower energy sere with more biodiversity and cooperative alliance that usually follows the opposite as energy resources decline - but it just doesn't roll off the tongue as nicely! Plus you end up losing more of your audience when you use technical jargon. Permaculture is a portmanteau, a combined word, of permanent and culture, and it's a conscious attempt to move incrementally away from the suicidal economic/ecological modalities we currently employ toward that more K-selected culture. We could cut >65% of our energy and resource use in this country and still live like kings. How much more time would just that tactic add to our descent? And that's just getting started. There are myriad low-tech durable technologies out there, mature technologies, that would draw the backside of Hubbert's curve out considerably. Permanent literally? No, you're right. But compared to the slick, fast-food, shoot-em-up-and-run tactics we're using now? Apples and oranges.

    And I think it's important to remember that money isn't actually important by itself. A currency collapse doesn't take out anything of real value, just the conventional means of organizing trade in those valuable things. If Wall Street goes under that's a good thing for topsoil, water, and forest health, and that is the sort of durable wealth that actually matters long-term.

    Obama excels at printing paper money, yes, but it's just the next act of the same play that's been going on since at least 1935, and certainly since Lyndon Johnson started the habit of sending back any numbers that didn't shine a positive light on his administration. Partisan loathing is a waste of your time.

    And no, food prices have not been rising steadily for the last half century. Adjusted for inflation food cost less in the 80s and 90s than it ever has in agricultural history, due entirely to cheap abundant energy. Our energy descent future will turn that on its head in a big bad way.


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  8. I feel like I should point out here that my predictions aren't coming true because I'm smarter than anyone else. No, once you have a handle on human resource ecology those predictions just flow. They're just normal ecological patterns superimposed on the human condition.

    Of course, if you believe that humans are a special case, or that industrial civilization is exempt from the normal patterns of cultural ebb and flow, you'll have to work a lot harder to make your predictions fit the emerging reality. Not that doing so is beyond the human scope...and it's actually much more lucrative than reality. Besides, Americans love doing lots of busy work.

  9. Ptolemy - Copernicus. We're at that sort of junction again.