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An Economy That Works For Us

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Sweet Spot

illustration from my book Finding the Sweet Spot

Robert Reich, the reformed former US Labor Secretary (under Clinton), recently wrote a very short summary explaining how the globalized, corporatized so-called “free market” economy benefits only a very few. I’m reproducing it below in its entirety, to set the stage for some of my thoughts on why real, grass-roots, local collaborative enterprises and co-ops are suffering so badly even as this economy continues to collapse:

One of the most deceptive ideas continuously sounded by the Right (and its fathomless think tanks and media outlets) is that the “free market” is natural and inevitable, existing outside and beyond government. So whatever inequality or insecurity it generates is beyond our control. And whatever ways we might seek to reduce inequality or insecurity — to make the economy work for us — are unwarranted constraints on the market’s freedom, and will inevitably go wrong.

By this view, if some people aren’t paid enough to live on, the market has determined they aren’t worth enough. If others rake in billions, they must be worth it. If millions of Americans remain unemployed or their paychecks are shrinking or they work two or three part-time jobs with no idea what they’ll earn next month or next week, that’s too bad; it’s just the outcome of the market.

According to this logic, government shouldn’t intrude through minimum wages, high taxes on top earners, public spending to get people back to work, regulations on business, or anything else, because the “free market” knows best.

In reality, the “free market” is a bunch of rules about

    1. what can be owned and traded (the genome? slaves? nuclear materials? babies? votes?);
    2. on what terms (equal access to the internet? the right to organize unions? corporate monopolies? the length of patent protections? );
    3. under what conditions (poisonous drugs? unsafe foods? deceptive Ponzi schemes? uninsured derivatives? dangerous workplaces?);
    4. what’s private and what’s public (police? roads? clean air and clean water? healthcare? good schools? parks and playgrounds?); [and]
    5. how to pay for what (taxes, user fees, individual pricing?). And so on.

These rules don’t exist in nature; they are human creations. Governments don’t “intrude” on free markets; governments organize and maintain them. Markets aren’t “free” of rules; the rules define them.

The interesting question is what the rules should seek to achieve. They can be designed to maximize efficiency (given the current distribution of resources), or growth (depending on what we’re willing to sacrifice to obtain that growth), or fairness (depending on our ideas about a decent society). Or some combination of all three — which aren’t necessarily in competition with one another. Evidence suggests, for example, that if prosperity were more widely shared, we’d have faster growth.

The rules can even be designed to entrench and enhance the wealth of a few at the top, and keep almost everyone else comparatively poor and economically insecure.

Which brings us to the central political question: Who should decide on the rules, and their major purpose? If our democracy was working as it should, presumably our elected representatives, agency heads, and courts would be making the rules roughly according to what most of us want the rules to be. The economy would be working for us.

Instead, the rules are being made mainly by those with the power and resources to buy the politicians, regulatory heads, and even the courts (and the lawyers who appear before them). As income and wealth have concentrated at the top, so has political clout. And the most important clout is determining the rules of the game.

Not incidentally, these are the same people who want you and most others to believe in the fiction of an immutable “free market.”

If we want to reduce the savage inequalities and insecurities that are now undermining our economy and democracy, we shouldn’t be deterred by the myth of the “free market.” We can make the economy work for us, rather than for only a few at the top. But in order to change the rules, we must exert the power that is supposed to be ours.

Mr Reich may believe in the ability of the political system to change the “rules” to adopt an economy that “works for us” (though I’m dubious; he’s worked in the system long enough to know better). I, however, don’t. The mess we’re in is nobody’s “fault” — it’s the result of people using their power and influence in their personal self-interest, which is exactly how this system is supposed to “work”, the only way a large-scale political or economic system driven by money really can.

It’s also, in my opinion, beyond repair or reform. Instead of hoping to fix it, we should, I believe, start to acknowledge it, understand it, and adapt to it. I think the best way to do that is to start by looking at and accepting the facts about our dysfunctional global industrial economy in the 21st century. They’re pretty grim. Here are a few of them:

  • Skyrocketing Gini Index of inequality and disappearance of the middle class. 400 Americans now have the same combined wealth as that of the poorest 50% of US citizens. That means almost all ‘discretionary’ and luxury spending (which is half of all spending) in the US is done by a tiny number of Americans. It’s better in Canada but trending quickly in the same direction.
  • Large corporations pay very high wages to executives and select contractors (e.g. lawyers), meagre wages to everyone else, and are cutting staff, services and contractors to keep profits growing.
  • The real rate of inflation is at least 8%, not what is published by governments. For example, a prescription that cost $200/month seven years ago probably costs at least $400/month now. That rate is much higher than the rate of interest people’s pension money is yielding and far higher than wage growth for the 99%. And many benefits once given to line employees (e.g. defined-benefit pensions, automobiles, prescription and dental plans) have been eliminated entirely.
  • Market share, media clout, intellectual property laws and accumulated wealth collectively allow large corporations to dominate every industry. These oligopolies ‘buy’ tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory reductions from politicians. This gives them a huge competitive advantage over small enterprises, and allows them to buy up or crush innovative competitors (which are usually small and cash-poor).
  • The executive class work crazy hours, and mostly pay people to do stuff for them. The working class also work crazy hours at multiple jobs, and usually have no time or money for anything beyond survival and needs of the moment (cheap food, beer, escapist entertainment). The middle class were the only ones who had both money and the time to spend it on non-urgent things. So while established business-to-large-corporation products and services, luxury consumer goods makers and do-it-for-executives personal services are thriving, almost all other types of enterprises are struggling.

What does this mean if you’re working with a small enterprise or co-op, or hoping/planning to start one?

Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour says: people do what they must (what’s urgent in their own personal day-to-day priorities), then they do what’s easy, and then they do what’s fun. They have no time or energy (or money) left for what’s ‘merely’ important to them or good for them. Because non-executive customers’ spending power has decreased dramatically (and these customers are working longer and harder just to keep up) sales to these customers, the mainstay of most small enterprises and co-ops, have shrunk significantly, and there’s been downward pressure on prices as well.

In short, as the middle class has disappeared, so has the capacity of citizens to buy the goods and services that are mostly provided by small, local enterprises and co-ops. It’s the Wal-Mart Dilemma writ large — people who work for companies that pay slave labour wages can only afford the cheap, shoddy merchandise (including junk food) that similar wage slavery corporations sell.

So if you don’t want to get swallowed up in an economy that makes you work longer and harder for less and less, what can you do?

The first step, I think, is to wean yourself off the global industrial growth economy as much as possible, so you’re not contributing to the problem. That means giving up junk food, buying at the mall, investments in the big banks and in public corporations, indebtedness to the usurers, especially banks, big mortgage companies and credit card companies, and paying for canned entertainment of all kinds. It means needing less, by learning to make and do more yourself (personally and in community). It means buying used. It means valuing your time more and money less.

It means doing things together with others that don’t cost money. It means ceasing to be a passive consumer. It means buying local. It means sharing. It means living simpler. It may mean getting your expenses down and your lifestyle shifted to the point you can quit your wage slave or large-corporation job and start to make a living for yourself with others in your community, meeting real local needs.

The second step is connecting with your community, rediscovering it as a shared place with an ever-growing ‘commons’ — resources and places — that you agree to contribute to, share and co-manage. And learning new skills, hard and soft, that will make you a valuable, trusted and loved member of that community. Pretty soon, you’ll know the community well enough to start to understand what they need that is no longer being provided by the crumbling industrial growth economy (or never was) that’s in your ‘sweet spot’ — something that you and partners with complementary skills can provide that you’re very good at, and love doing, your ‘right livelihood’.

Of course, it’s not that easy. We have lost our sense of community, and our willingness to build and associate and collaborate with people in our physical vicinity, some of whom we may not particularly like. Many of these essential capacities will take lifetimes and generations to become competent at again. And as long as the dregs of the industrial growth economy keep dumping cheap junk from the latest wage slave nation on us, many will be tempted to take them and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.

But even if we can re-create community and tap into what we really need for a responsible, sustainable and joyful life, what do we do if the goods or services we provide aren’t affordable to, or aren’t yet appreciated by, those who need them? In other words, what do you do when you’re in the business of providing services that are not urgent, easy or fun, mostly for a middle class that has become working class and now has very little time or money for ‘non-essentials’? How can you make what you do essential and affordable to those who need it?

the only one

cartoon by hugh mcleod at gapingvoid

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Combine it with related or alternative offerings of others, so that you collectively make it easier and less time-consuming for people to get what you offer. You may be able to achieve some cost economies in the process that can be passed along to your customers. This is the advantage that led to the development of shopping ‘malls’, and Saturday farmers’ markets.
  2. Understand and stress the benefits of what you do. People don’t buy things for their features; they buy for what those things do for them, things they think are important. People don’t buy a drill, they buy (a solution to provide) the holes they need drilled. People eat fast food to save time and energy, not (usually) because it tastes good. If you sell ‘slow food’, for example, how might you make it ‘faster’ without compromising quality? Offer to chop or mix it for the customer at point-of-sale? Offer easy recipes and provide a kit with all the (fresh) ingredients? And while you’re at it, provide the customer with hard data that shows how many days eating well adds to your life, and how many more of those days will be healthy. And no matter what product or service you provide, the fact that you, the supplier, are local, not ten thousand miles away, and that hence you are accessible, knowledgeable, and committed to the community in which you and your customers live, is a huge benefit.
  3. Talk with people who you think need what you offer but aren’t buying, and find out why not, and adjust what you offer accordingly. The people you ask will probably want to make you happy with excuses, but persevere and find out the real reasons. In the process of doing this:
  4. Discover what people really need through collaborative, iterative conversations. Most people don’t really know what they want. They need to be talked through it, to discover it with you. No one thought they ‘needed’ to be able to keep and play all their music on a handheld device. Until they realized it could save them a ton of money, enable them to share their collection, and increase its durability, and until they appreciated that the initial challenges of poor headphones, expensive digital storage, compression and processing speeds were all solvable. Now most of us would be lost without these inexpensive, ubiquitous tools. Appreciation of needs and ideas to address them co-evolve, and conversations are the best way to fast-track that evolution.
  5. Find imaginative partners. We live in an age of great creativity (making beautiful, intricate things once they’ve been invented and spec’d out), but terrible imaginative poverty. The kind of person who reads about why butterflies are so colourful when their wings have no pigment (hint: it’s molecular light refraction), and then realizes that this knowledge could be used to create un-counterfeitable currency or colourful paint-free products, is worth their weight in gold.
  6. Make using your product or service more fun. We have become passive consumers of absurdly overpriced canned entertainment, and have forgotten how to create fun for ourselves. Show us how to do it.
  7. Be unique. As the cartoon business card above says, don’t try to make a living doing something incrementally different from what others are doing. Any ‘competitive advantage’ of being cheaper or faster or ‘better’ than others is inevitably transient. Be the only game in town, even though it takes a lot of work and thought to do it. And if you succeed, be sure that others will try to copy you with their own incremental differences. But the advantage of having been there first is enormous.
  8. Capitalize on the sharing economy. What do the people in your community own that they rarely use (think: spare bedrooms, second cars, tools and toolrooms, formal wear, fruit trees), and how could you connect those people with others who could really use these ‘surplus’ goods? Who has skills and time on their hands (think: retired people, unemployed people, disadvantaged people) that could be put to good use meeting real needs? But don’t think about how this can be money-making; think about connecting the surplus to the needs, and trust that the joy of the givers and the gratefulness of the recipients will ultimately provide you with rewards different and greater than you could imagine.
  9. Give it away free, and freely. Our gifts have a remarkable way of coming back to us in surprising ways (just as our harmful acts do). Humans are essentially generous and appreciative, and as Charles Eisenstein and others have been explaining the Gift Economy is the natural economy, the one that we have lived with for most of our time on Earth. Our stingy, selfish, dysfunctional, price-driven industrial economy may make you feel foolish for giving things away without thought of reciprocation or recognition (‘charitable giving’ is not giving things away, and is never ‘free’), but try it; you may be amazed.
  10. Be patient. Most people who have found their ‘sweet spot’ have many stories of earlier failure. Fail fast, intelligently and inexpensively, learn from your mistakes, and try again. The work you’re meant to do is waiting for you to discover.

So Mr Reich is correct — we need an economy that works for us, not for the 1%. But the best way to create that economy is not through lobbying or voting or protests, but by working together in our communities to meet our own needs, intelligently, sustainably, responsibly, imaginatively, and joyfully.

It will not be easy, but its time is coming, fast.

(reposted from How to Save the World)

What Is Your True Song?

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

The bird pictured at right  (credit Roland Jordahl) is a Swainson’s Thrush, a regular summer visitor here on Bowen Island. Like most birds, it has both “songs” and “calls”. The songs tend to be more melodious and variable — each bird’s is slightly different. The calls are simpler, standard and more abrupt. Here is the song, followed by the call, of the Swainson’s Thrush.

I imagine that songs and calls convey entirely different types of messages. Songs, I think, are a bird’s way of expressing herself — what she feels and who she is. Calls, I would think, are urgent messages to the flock or potential flockmates, such as “come” or “danger”.

Some smarter birds, like the corvids and parrots, are excellent mimics. They have such a vast repertoire of others’ songs and calls (those of other birds, people, animals and even inanimate sounds) that we rarely hear their own song. Yet according to ornithologist Bernd Heinrich, ravens, when alone, will sing themselves to sleep. Only in private moments, perhaps, do they sing their own true song.

There is a theory espoused by some scientists that wild creatures spend the bulk of their lives in “Now Time”, a kind of recursive time-out-of-time that stretches out seemingly forever — what we feel sometimes when we say that “time has stopped”. In these moments out of time, the theory says, these creatures are utterly present, totally a part of the oneness of all-life-on-Earth.

In moments of stress, they quickly snap out of Now Time into Clock Time, when instincts of fight-or-flight kick in, adrenaline pumps, the mind and heart race to keep up with the sudden break-neck pace of time, and all their energies are focused on identifying and responding appropriately to the source of stress.

I imagine that birds’ calls are mostly alerts to shift out of Now Time into Clock Time. Then, once the cause of the stress is gone, the creature quickly re-enters Now Time, with soft clucks of comfort that signal “all clear”, when the creature is free to sing her song once again.

I wonder if the “smarter” creatures on our planet have fewer songs and more calls by virtue of their (our) greater awareness of all the potential dangers and their (our) greater population density (a result of evolutionary success and adaptive skill) — to the point we end up so chronically stressed we never have the opportunity to shift into Now Time. Perhaps we lose the capacity to do so entirely, from lack of opportunity and practice.

This would seem to be the message of many New Age pundits — that we need to find ways and practices to rediscover this presence, slow our lives down to relearn the capacity to enter into Now Time, the seemingly eternal present.

Artists, I think, have this sense, this capacity, more than most others. They seem able to immerse themselves, to open themselves to what is present, to set aside temporarily the pervasive stresses of our civilization and really see, feel, and re-present, what really is. I wonder whether our human languages, designed as they are for the conveyance of commands, instruction and information, are really just elaborate sets of calls, and whether it is in poetry, story, art and music that our human songs find their voice.

As I focus my new life more on creative activities — writing music, stories and poetry — perhaps I am seeking ways to create, or discover, my own song. What nuances and messages would be captured in this song, what expressions of nobody-but-myself? My guess is that it would have notes of joy and others of melancholy, sounds that convey a passion to learn and to play and to imagine what is possible, to reflect and express and explore, and to love. Could a song be subtle enough to convey all this, and even accentuate those passions that I believe I am more (or less) gifted at, and which are “on purpose” for me rather than just for fun?

Perhaps this is what all our conversations, the endless cacophony of words we speak and write and think, are all directed at — expressing, both for our own evolving sense of self and for the discovery of others, who we really are.

What, do you imagine, is your true song?

Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot, The Natural Entrepreneur’s Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work

Links and Tweets of the Month

Monday, July 19th, 2010
PREPARING FOR CIVILIZATION’S END
Our Belief Systems at a Turning Point?: Gail at the Oil Drum suggests that the Enron/Worldcomm frauds, the bailout of greedy financial corporations, and now the incompetence and deception of BP and its cohorts have finally pushed the majority of us to a turning point where we no longer believe (a) businesses can ever be trusted to self-regulate or act in the public interest, or (b) technology and innovation will “save” us when we get into trouble. She may be right, but alas, the majority are still far from the turning point of giving up on charismatic leaders, higher powers or the cult of the individual. Only when we re-learn to self-organize, in community, will we start to make the hard transition to a better way to live, one that will give us some resilience to cope with collapse.

What Collapse Will Look Like: Pulitzer-winning NYT reporter Chris Hedges presents a stunning analysis of civilization’s beginning decline, and a portrayal of its ultimate collapse. Excerpt:

The tantalizing illusions offered by our consumer culture are vanishing for most citizens as we head toward collapse. The ability of the corporate state to pacify the country by extending credit and providing cheap manufactured goods to the masses is gone. The jobs we are shedding are not coming back… The belief that democracy lies in the choice between competing brands and the accumulation of vast sums of personal wealth at the expense of others is exposed as a fraud. Freedom can no longer be conflated with the free market. The travails of the poor are rapidly becoming the travails of the middle class, especially as unemployment insurance runs out. And class warfare, once buried under the happy illusion that we were all going to enter an age of prosperity with unfettered capitalism, is returning with a vengeance.

America is sinking under trillions in debt it can never repay and stays afloat by frantically selling about $2 billion in Treasury bonds a day to the Chinese. It saw 2.8 million people lose their homes in 2009 to foreclosure or bank repossessions – nearly 8,000 people a day – and stands idle as they are joined by another 2.4 million people this year. It refuses to prosecute the Bush administration for obvious war crimes, including the use of torture, and sees no reason to dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws or restore habeas corpus. Its infrastructure is crumbling. Deficits are pushing individual states to bankruptcy and forcing the closure of everything from schools to parks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have squandered trillions of dollars, appear endless. There are 50 million Americans in real poverty and tens of millions of Americans in a category called “near poverty.” One in eight Americans – and one in four children – depend on food stamps to eat. And yet, in the midst of it all, we … continue to embrace the illusion of inevitable progress, personal success and rising prosperity. Reality is not considered an impediment to desire…

The decline of American empire began [when] we saw our country transformed from one that primarily produced to one that primarily consumed. We started borrowing to maintain a level of consumption as well as an empire we could no longer afford. We began to use force, especially in the Middle East, to feed our insatiable thirst for cheap oil. We substituted the illusion of growth and prosperity for real growth and prosperity. The bill is now due. America’s most dangerous enemies are not Islamic radicals but those who sold us the perverted ideology of free-market capitalism and globalization. They have dynamited the very foundations of our society. In the 17th century these speculators would have been hung. Today they run the government and consume billions in taxpayer subsidies…

And yet, even in the face of catastrophe, mass culture continues to assure us that if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want, if we have faith in ourselves, if we tell God that we believe in miracles, if we tap into our inner strength, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, if we focus on happiness, our lives will be harmonious and complete. This cultural retreat into illusion, whether peddled by positive psychologists, by Hollywood or by Christian preachers, is magical thinking.

In a second article, Hedges describes the current “Mafia capitalism” and why it is now too late to try to rein in the corporatists who are accelerating the ultimate collapse of industrial civilization in their own, psychotic, short-term interest. [Thanks to Craig De Ruisseau for the first link and Edgerider for the second]

Advice for the Collapse: Hold Cash Now But Be Ready to Convert to Hard Goods: Ilargi explains that, for now, keeping your investments in cash in your local currency makes sense (stocks and bonds do not), but in the longer run, currencies will probably become worthless too. In addition to the hyper-inflation that’s likely to follow the current deflationary spiral, there is the risk of currency reissuance, as governments with crumbling economies simply replace discredited currencies with “new” currencies. By then you need to convert your currency to useful, durable hard goods. Meanwhile Paul Krugman says the Third Depression and a prolonged period of deflation are coming soon.

Renewables Can’t Save Us: Ted Trainer explains why renewable energy sources, taken collectively, and even assuming technology advances continue apace, cannot even begin to replace hydrocarbons, and why a dramatic and sustained plunge in global energy production is therefore inevitable. Thanks to Bowen’s Don Marshall for the link, and the one that follows.

Coping Emotionally With Collapse: Robert Jensen explains that, before we can act with full energy and intention to make the world a better place, we first have to come to grips with the emotional grief that comes with an awareness that collapse and extinction are coming, and that it is our species that is responsible. An elder, responding to Jensen’s request for ideas on how to cope with this grief, said:

I’m about to celebrate my 70th birthday. I live in a rural intentional community, close to land that feeds us and supports us. I’ve lived long enough now to be very aware of how different the world has become, how the cycles of nature are off kilter, how the seasons and the climate have shifted. My garden tells me that food doesn’t grow in quite the same patterns, and we either get weeks of rain or weeks of heat and drought. This is the second year in a row that our apple trees do not have apples on them. But most people get their food in grocery stores where the apples still appear, and food still arrives, in season and out, from all over the world. This will soon end, and people won’t understand why. They don’t see the trouble in the land as I and my friends do. I grieve daily as I look on this altered world. My grandchildren are young adults who think their lives will continue as they have been. Who will tell them? They can’t hear me. They, and many others, will have to see the changes for themselves, as I have. I can’t imagine that anything else will convince them. My grief for the world, and for them, is compounded by this feeling of helplessness because there is no way we can have the collective action you speak of when the ‘collective’ is still in denial.

In a similar vein, Transition’s Sophy Banks explains why support to help cope with this grief is an integral part of the Transition movement (thanks to Tree for that link).

Gulf Sea Floor Ruptured Beyond Repair: Russian scientists working at the scene confirm what the US/UK authorities won’t say: That due to 18 ruptures in the sea floor miles apart, created by the incompetent drilling activities of BP and its corporatist cohorts and government lackeys, the BP oil “spill” will never stop, and cannot be contained [Mother Jones has more detail on this -- thanks to Johnny Moore for the MJ link]. This blot on the environment will join the post-Katrina remains of New Orleans as icons of the unsustainability of Industrial Civilization. Thanks to Jerry Michalski for the link, and the one that follows.

An Economist Explains How the US Economy Has Been Permanently Hollowed Out: Henry Mintzberg: “A recent Gallup poll suggested that 55% of the American workforce is not engaged and another 16% is actively disengaged. Perhaps this is best explained by the relentless downsizing of the large American companies… Those left behind, with trust lost in their ‘leadership,’ have been inclined to put down their heads, cover their tails, and soldier on until they burned out or were themselves downsized.”

And a Non-Economist Explains How Economics Really Works: Joe Bageant provides a scathing and hilarious summing-up of economics. Excerpt:

The doomers and the peak oilers gag, and they call it American denial. Personally, I think it is somewhat unfair to say that most Americans and Canadians are in denial. They simply don’t have a fucking clue about what is really happening to them and their world. Everything they have been taught about working, money and “quality of life” constitutes the planet’s greatest problem — overshoot. Understanding this trashes our most basic assumptions, and requires a complete reversal in contemporary thought and practice about how we live in the world. When was the last time you saw any individual, much less an entire nation, do that?

Compounding our ignorance and naiveté are the officials and experts, politicians, media elites, and especially economists, who interpret the world for us and govern the course of things. The go-to guys. They don’t know either. But they’ve got the lingo down. Somehow or other, it all has to do with the economy, which none of us understands, despite round the clock media jabbering on the subject. Somehow it has to do with this great big spring on Wall Street called “the market” that’s gotta be kept wound up, and interest rates at something called The Fed, which have got to be kept smunched down. The industry of crystal gazing and hairball rubbing surrounding these entities is called economics.

Rich Walk Away from Mortgages, Poor Keep Paying: Most poor and middle-class Americans are still paying off mortgages, some of them much greater than the value of their homes, in the hope that prices will recover. The rich, backed by armies of overpaid morality-free lawyers who can find ways to creditor-proof their other assets, are instead walking away from their “underwater” mortgages in droves — and hence becoming even richer.

Embodying Action: Vera Bradova suggests a pathway from inaction, to either earnest outward action (conventional “political” activism) or what she calls  lifestylism (“green quietism”, caught up in the minutiae of political wrangling), to what she calls “embodied action” (including and moving from personal to political activism). “The path of embodiment, of incarnating my values and desires in my flesh-and-blood being, leads then organically into action which is infused by those values and desires.” In a related post, she explains the broad appeal of the Transition Movement.

LIVING BETTER

An Alternative to Open Space?: South African facilitator Allan Kaplan explains an intriguing and involved approach to facilitating groups dealing with complex situations, focused on continuous probing and provoking the group to greater and greater depths of collective insight. It appears to be quite a bit more hands-on than Open Space and other approaches to complex issues, and is based around a challenging series of questions each group must address, that emerges from the direction of the discussions and insights revealed. Based on the work of Goethe, it is called the Proteus approach. Anyone tried this? Thanks to David Derauf for the link.

A Potential Supreme Court Judge of Exceptional Quality: Jonathan Rauch provides a look at the nuanced  and savvy judgement of Elena Kagan and explains why he supports her despite her unwillingness to be a judicial advocate for gay marriage. The US Supreme Court might actually become functional and relevant again if it had more judges like her and fewer corporatist cronies and louts like Clarence Thomas.

Haitians Reject Monsanto Seeds: Haitians, although desperate for seeds in their storm- and earthquake-ravaged country, had the good sense to just say No to the “gift” of patented, invasive, chemical-dependent seeds of Monsanto, one of the world’s worst corporatist scourges. Thanks to Tree for the link.

POLITICS AND ECONOMICS AS USUAL

What Happens When Cities and States Go Bankrupt: The thousands of municipalities and states in the US are now, mostly, either insolvent or bankrupt. Like the big banks, they will be considered “too big to fail” and will be rescued by a federal government that will print yet more trillions of dollars to fund the bailouts, until finally the world cries “enough” and refuses to accept unrepayable US debt any longer. In the meantime, services will be slashed, bills will remain unpaid for months at a time (as happened in the Soviet Union before its collapse), but, not by accident, taxes will not be raised to help cope with the deficits. The NYT explains why this can and will be allowed to happen.

Obama Condones Arbitrary and Criminal Torture of Canadian: The Obama administration has compounded the utterly disgraceful and contemptuous treatment of Canadian torture victim Maher Arar. The only thing more disgraceful is that the Canadian government puts up with this abuse of one of its citizens.

putangitangi by pohangina pete

putangitangi female, from the camera of the remarkable photographer (and friend) pohangina pete

FUN AND INSPIRATION

Bonnie Stewart tells of relationships lost, and, perhaps, found. Her writing is amazing.

Artists, Raise Your Weapons: My latest post on Dark Mountain describes Derrick Jensen’s and Stephanie McMillan’s recent provocations for artists to become more activist, and to eschew all activities not directly focused at fighting against industrial civilization. And I was very pleased to be mentioned by the Dark Mountain founders on their blog, for my earlier post on the role of artists in re-presenting the collapse of civilization and imagining better ways to live.

Cirque Phenix mixes dance and circus acrobatics to dazzling effect. Thanks to Dawn Smith for the link.

Eric Whitaker’s virtual choir. Lots more of his great compositions here. Thanks to Tree for the link.

David Foster Wallace predicted in his novel Infinite Jest that the kind of wifi videophone functionality in the new iPhone 4 would fail to catch on, according to Jason Kottke. We’ll see. Thanks to Chris Lott for the link.

Two by humourist Andy Borowitz: BP develops technology to convert lies into energy; and Angered by steroid accusations Lance Anderson throws car at reporter

THOUGHTS FOR THE MONTH

From Siona Van Dijk:

These days the present feels wrong. These days I feel wistful for the future, for moments of greater chaos when either we or our chlidren’s children will look back and laugh aghast at what we chose today to dramatize, at our naive concerns about the world, at our tragicomic headlines (so quaint! so misguided!) and fears. I feel wistful for a future as distant as we are from the ancients, one in which all that we consider known and true is wrong. i feel wistful for a future that contains nobody.

From Sheldon Kopp  (thanks to Tree for this quote and the one that follows): “The most difficult part of loving is learning to tolerate the helplessness we feel in the face of a loved one’s suffering.”

From Fred LaMotte: “Sometimes we aren’t called to heal a family member or a sea turtle, or to change them, or to lay on some slick enlightenment: but just to be present to their pain. This is difficult, because it requires humility.”

From Wendell Berry’s The Peace of Wild Things ( <– please watch the video — simple and stunning):

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot, The Natural Entrepreneur’s Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work, which is available in our bookstore.

Mini Book Review: Edible Forest Gardens

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

plant hardiness zones
Edible Forest Gardens (Books 1 & 2), by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier

What is most remarkable about this exhaustive and practical course in temperate climate (zones 4-7) permaculture is that only about 40 of its over 1000 pages are about the work of planting and maintaining an "edible forest garden" ("a perennial polyculture of multipurpose [native] plants"); the rest is understanding what to plant, when, and why. The whole idea of these gardens is to enable you to harvest an abundance of varied foodstuffs with almost no maintenance.

The theory takes up the whole first volume and needs every page. The challenge, you see, is that even what we might perceive as 'wilderness' is in fact nothing of the sort. Humans, right back to First Nations thousands of years ago, have utterly altered the vegetation that now looks so wild and 'natural'. On top of that, climate change has, since the ice ages, been continuously changing what grows where.

In order to allow nature to provide you, effortlessly year after year, a harvest of abundance, you first need to discover what naturally grew and what naturally will grow where you live. You need to study the botanical history of your home. Then, since it cannot be quickly 'restored' to natural, sustainable state (succession goes through many long intermediary stages and can take centuries to achieve equilibrium), you need to be smart enough to plan for a 20-30 year 'hurry-up succession' that will chivy the process along. You have to plant in stages, knowing that early stages are just preparing the soil, the ecosystem and the ground cover and canopy for later stages, and that some of the first things you plant won't be around at the end of the succession at all if you've done your job right. This takes serious knowledge and study, a lot of patience and relearning what our ancestors learned as a matter of course. It's in many ways a course in what Derrick Jensen has called "listening to the land".

There probably isn't anything you could learn that would be more important, for your soul, for your community, for your resilience in the coming age of climate change and other disasters that will require us all to become much more self-sufficient than we are today. Start now, and when cascading economic, social and ecological catastrophes hit us in the 2030s and bring existing food production and other systems to their knees, you'll be ready to gather the fruits of your labour.

Hello world!

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Hello everyone. I'll be using this blog to cross-post articles from my regular weblog, How to Save the World, that I think might be of interest to Chelsea Green readers. I'm the author of Finding the Sweet Spot: The Natural Entrepreneur's Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work, new from Chelsea Green.