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Much of what lies ahead of us is undoing the mistakes of the last few centuries.

The last half of Chapter 19 in Adam Bede by George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans). Divided into paragraphs for readability on the web.

As he made up his mind to this, he was coming very near to the end of his walk, within the sound of the hammers at work on the refitting of the old house.

The sound of tools to a clever workman who loves his work is like the tentative sounds of the orchestra to the violinist who has to bear his part in the overture: the strong fibres begin their accustomed thrill, and what was a moment before joy, vexation, or ambition, begins its change into energy.

All passion becomes strength when it has an outlet from the narrow limits of our personal lot in the labour of our right arm, the cunning of our right hand, or the still, creative activity of our thought.

Look at Adam through the rest of the day, as he stands on the scaffolding with the two-feet ruler in his hand, whistling low while he considers how a difficulty about a floor-joist or a window-frame is to be overcome; or as he pushes one of the younger workmen aside and takes his place in upheaving a weight of timber, saying, “Let alone, lad! Thee’st got too much gristle i’ thy bones yet”; or as he fixes his keen black eyes on the motions of a workman on the other side of the room and warns him that his distances are not right.

Look at this broad-shouldered man with the bare muscular arms, and the thick, firm, black hair tossed about like trodden meadow-grass whenever he takes off his paper cap, and with the strong barytone voice bursting every now and then into loud and solemn psalm-tunes, as if seeking an outlet for superfluous strength, yet presently checking himself, apparently crossed by some thought which jars with the singing.


Adam, you perceive, was by no means a marvellous man, nor, properly speaking, a genius, yet I will not pretend that his was an ordinary character among workmen; and it would not be at all a safe conclusion that the next best man you may happen to see with a basket of tools over his shoulder and a paper cap on his head has the strong conscience and the strong sense, the blended susceptibility and self-command, of our friend Adam.

He was not an average man. Yet such men as he are reared here and there in every generation of our peasant artisans–with an inheritance of affections nurtured by a simple family life of common need and common industry, and an inheritance of faculties trained in skilful courageous labour: they make their way upwards, rarely as geniuses, most commonly as painstaking honest men, with the skill and conscience to do well the tasks that lie before them.

Their lives have no discernible echo beyond the neighbourhood where they dwelt, but you are almost sure to find there some good piece of road, some building, some application of mineral produce, some improvement in farming practice, some reform of parish abuses, with which their names are associated by one or two generations after them.

Their employers were the richer for them, the work of their hands has worn well, and the work of their brains has guided well the hands of other men.

They went about in their youth in flannel or paper caps, in coats black with coal-dust or streaked with lime and red paint; in old age their white hairs are seen in a place of honour at church and at market, and they tell their well-dressed sons and daughters, seated round the bright hearth on winter evenings, how pleased they were when they first earned their twopence a-day.

Others there are who die poor and never put off the workman’s coal on weekdays. They have not had the art of getting rich, but they are men of trust, and when they die before the work is all out of them, it is as if some main screw had got loose in a machine; the master who employed them says, “Where shall I find their like?”


Gardening is the Answer

The reality is that fossil fuels will no longer be available to power our civilization.We will have to go back to relying on the sun for energy. We can’t be sure exactly when or how this inflection point will take place, but it will take place.

Energy becomes more expensive; conflicts over energy become the norm.

It’s wishful thinking to imagine that photo-voltaic cells, hydrogen or any other technology can take the place of petroleum. Natural gas, coal, and uranium will make a dent in the downward curve, but but they are limited and there will be no going back to cheap energy.

(Nothing original here. The foregoing is the position of Richard Heinberg and his school of Peak Oil thinkers. The same ideas were circulating in the 70s. See Peak Oil Links for details on this argument. See especially the Die-Off site.)

If we are going back to solar energy, how do we do it? For the most part, through gardening. Gardening means harvesting the sun’s power through vegetation to produce food, drink, medicines, fabrics, dyes, fuel (biomass), and building material. Gardening is intensive and intelligent, de-centralized and local.

But Gardening Needs a Culture

Eventually (after centuries), we will recover the knowledge and attitudes necessary for good gardening.

What a waste though. The technical knowledge is available now. Now, it would be easy to develop techniques and infrastructure to get us through the hard times to come.

What to do?

Here, now. Struggle to earn a living, meet family and other obligations. How to start the new culture? Well, be patient. // I want to get gardening away from the specialists. They keep the information alive, but as a special group, they have habits that make it difficult for everybody to join. And it’s critical that it be open to everyone.

Trying to read 200 pages of dense text on fruit growing. (Calif MG Handbook). It’s a good reference, but it is irrelevant to the job of creating a new culture. For that, need stories, meaning. How frivolous and superficial seem our gardening texts, compared to the central role gardening and farming had in previous centuries. Here we talk about the colors and textures of landscape plants. The Bible uses gardening imagery for the most profound of ideas.


I had a strange feeling reading about trees, fruit trees, and pruning. Trees are more imposing presences than herbs and vegetables. More of a personality. An imposing presence. A greater emotional relationship to them. Fig tree in our back yard. The cherry trees. Redwoods, eucalyptus. Tape on plant amnesty, crusading against bad pruning. // Trees are there… but do we write about them? Do we think about them? There are bureaucratic, technical, and legal approaches, but these aren’t satisfying. They are just the silly response of an overly developed culture. // Walk among them. They are beings. Long-lived. // a sick, guilty, feeling… of my own superficiality and inconsequentiality. // remember trees wrapped up in my memories, relationships. took place. Quote from Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. Beginning of first chapter:

To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.

Beginning of last chapter:

The point in Yalbury Wood which abutted on the end of Geoffrey Day’s premises was closed with an ancient tree, horizontally of enormous extent, though having no great pretensions to height. Many hundreds of birds had been born amidst the boughs of this single tree; tribes of rabbits and hares had nibbled at its bark from year to year; quaint tufts of fungi had sprung from the cavities of its forks; and countless families of moles and earthworms had crept about its roots. Beneath and beyond its shade spread a carefully-tended grass-plot, its purpose being to supply a healthy exercise-ground for young chickens and pheasants; the hens, their mothers, being enclosed in coops placed upon the same green flooring.

All these encumbrances were now removed, and as the afternoon advanced, the guests gathered on the spot, where music, dancing, and the singing of songs went forward with great spirit throughout the evening. [wedding takes place here]

I’m enrolled in a Master Gardeners (MG) class, which should serve me as impetus to really learn the material. Over the years, I’ve read a lot and been exposed to gardeners and naturalists; in so doing I’ve accumulated a collection of ideas that now rattle around upstairs. But botany is a field I’ve only visited; I’ve never lived there.

I can see how my defenses go up as I read or listen to lectures. “Why didn’t I know that? It’s so basic!” I think. Or I realize past actions were futile or mistaken. One imagines the laughter or criticism of others, the stomach tightens, and one begins to spin a rigid web of excuses and rationalizations. Wasted effort. Better just to accept one’s imperfections.

It helps to stay away from people who are competitive or fault-finding when you are learning. That’s why classes and schools can be so destructive. A good teacher is a precious. Bad situations — let them go, don’t fight them, go elsewhere.

I appreciate the knowledge in the Master Gardener courses, but I inwardly bridle at the instrumentalist worldview: “Plants exist purely for our use and we are entitled to do anything we like to them. The purpose of gardening techniques is to maximize our pleasure/calories/profits from plants and minimize our work and trouble.”

Fortunately, most plant people seem to have an innate sympathy for plants, a Deep Green consciousness.

A second criticism I have is that the horticulture field seems to be dominated by the engineering/business mindset: “Real gardening is done to maximize yield, in a scientific, methodical way.” This model is totally inappropriate for home gardeners who garden to supply their families with food and for their own pleasure. Permaculturalist David Holmgren said something similar in his new book… I’d like to find the citation. Rather than proceeding from an engineering model, home horticulture should look to history and traditions for inspiration.

A third criticism is that the Master Gardeners material deals only minimally with the ecological or environmental aspects of gardening. OTOH, they apparently promote organic methods much more than in the past. I foresee that permaculture will come to be part of the Master Gardener curriculum just as organic gardening has.

As with the teaching of any craft, MG can degenerate into the memorization of procedures. The best teachers go beyond the basics, help you see the reasons for things, make you see connections you hadn’t seen before.

Still and all, MG is a great experience, a wonderful program. I wish more things in life were organized the way MG is.

Discussion with a Peak Oil (PO) activist about whether drilling for oil in ANWR is relevant to Peak Oil. (See Conoco deals ANWR drilling a blow.)

B: ANWR is a key oil vs environment issue, one we’ll see repeated again and again. Not just in the US, but worldwide.

L: Yes, which is why i feel need to focus on the donut not the hole, the disease not the symptoms.

B: Pressure on the oil companies seems to have paid off. Other groups may want to imitate these tactics

L: For how long tho, has ANWR been saved? Do you really think most ppl will give a stuff about beasties 100s of kms away when their heat goes off, or will they then say drill/dig/stripmine whereever the stuff is? Saving bits now, without stopping the culture of consumer capitalism, only means those bits will go last. Its like waking up to discover house is on fire, grabbing yr fav memento’s & running upstairs – no point if the house is still on fire, got to put the fire out.

B: Would it be accurate to say that you see PO as a spike, a relatively sudden event that will cause panic and disruption? If so, it would make sense to focus on the underlying problem (“consumer capitalism”) and fix it, presumably through small low-energy communities à la Ted Trainer.

I see PO instead as a set of interlocking crises … environmental, political, economic, cultural… that will manifest themselves in different places and different times. The mindset and infrastructure have taken hundreds of years to build up; unwinding the fossil fuel society will be a long, bumpy, multi-faceted process. For me, the important things are to make connections and establish alliances.

Thus, ANWR is an opportunity to understand the inter-connection between consumerism, oil, and environmental destruction. I recently saw “Oil on Ice”, a documentary that made these points. (Also see a page on the relationship of ANWR to energy). I talked to one of the filmmakers, who told me they were aware of PO and their next film would emphasize it. I said I would try to write a review of the film… maybe the discussion with you will prompt me into going ahead with it.

I don’t necessarilly share the recommendations of the film — for example in their emphasis on hybrid cars as a significant solution. But for me, the question is not whether I agree with them 100%, but are they going in the right direction and can we work together?

L is a smart guy with a gift for incisive criticism, so I await his next reply.

REAL Writing

In a world of teenage bloggers, is there any room for REAL writers and REAL writing? How can you explain the difference between trash and quality?

All I know is that I feel nauseous and depressed after spending too much time reading blogs and discussion forums. Superficial opinions, insults, brash humor, vulgarity. It makes me want to throw myself into 19th century literature and never come back.

What prompts this curmudgeonly train of thought is that I just finished reading aloud to my wife the novel Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. (We read to each other at bedtime.) Sheer delight. The story is simple. Fancy Day, a new school teacher comes to the small village of Mellstock. Three men fall in love with her: a rich farmer, the vicar, and Dick Dewy, the son of the trantor (hauler of goods). Over the course of a year, Dick Dewy courts Fancy Day and they marry. The end.

Obviously not enough action for modern tastes. Besides, the characters are strange and unkempt. They speak in dialect with queer turns of speech.

But for those of us who are out of love with Amercult, the pleasure of Hardy lies in immersing ourselves in the genial, slow-moving rural society of early 19th century England. Our blood pressures go down and we begin to notice small things, like the matted leaves on a path in the rain.

Maybe Peak Oil will force us to stay in one place and rediscover the quieter pleasures of earlier eras.

New Beginnings

Jan 1 — a good time to return to blogging. I doubt that anyone is interested in my obsessions. But to anyone who is, I make the commitment to write clearly and tell the truth.

I also resolve the clean up previous entries in this blog and post several articles I’ve been working on.

Expressing Yourself Online

I’ve been posting to the PeakOil.com website and contributing to the Energy Bulletin website. Plus, dipping my toe in the permaculture and SANET mail lists.

What’s GOOD about discussion groups and mail lists:

  • One gets practice expressing oneself. I’ve written “objectively” for so many years — in journalism and technical writing — that writing my own ideas and feelings is awkward and unfamiliar. It’s like moving muscles I haven’t exercised.
  • One learns to be diplomatic and handle disagreements.
  • One establishes relationships and friendships. Enemies are easy to find too.
  • No matter how bizarre one’s interest, one can find a virtual community with members who are similarly obsessed.

What’s BAD about discussion groups and mail lists:

  • Much of the time is spent on stupid arguments. You spend two hours composing a devastating reply to someone on whom you wouldn’t spend two minutes in real life.
  • Most people on the lists aren’t serious.
  • It takes time, energy and emotions to deal with people and write well.

I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent posting, and I’ve become more accustomed to writing in a personal voice for other people. But in 2005 it will be time to detach myself from the lists and put my energy into serious writing.

And yet posting is addictive. I’ll need to rely on a Higher Power to help me keep this resolution!

Simple Living

I found a simple living site by philosophy professor Bob Corbett: http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/simple.html. A larger site is Unconventional Ideas by John Andersen (no relation).

It’s hard to find anything wrong with simple living. Practicing it improves any situation.

A few years back I was involved with a Simple Living discussion group and I retain ambivalent feelings about it. It was nice to find other people with the same urge to simplify, yet I quickly discovered that I was on a different wavelength.

There were two points of contention. First, the members were middle American in outlook, politically unsophisticated and vulnerable to the crackerbarrel fascists. I realized how effectively a few vocal rightists can take over an online group, bringing up welfare fraud, Hilary Clinton, etc. (I wonder if there’s a plot among pajama-clad right-wingers to disrupt liberal discussion groups?)

Secondly, I had a problem with the standard textbook for modern Simple Living, Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez, Vicki Robin. Basically it’s a Ten-Step program for curing oneself of materialism and achieving financial independence. It’s a tremendously effective strategy and a laudable one.

What drove me crazy was the chapter on investments, which said in effect: “Don’t worry your pretty little heads about investments; they are too complicated and no one can win. Just put everything in long-term US bonds.” Well, it’s more complicated than that and I spent many hours trying to explain why.

I may have been right, I may have been wrong, but when the situation is not working it’s better to be quiet or leave. Charging into battle again and again is not the only option; one would think I would have learned that by now!


Speaking of “charging into battle again and again”…

I’ve been reading the Marxism mailing list at http://www.marxmail.org/. Although I’m not an expert on Marxist sects, the list has a strong flavor of Trotskyism. Fierce, argumentative, dogmatic, intelligent, sectarian, critical of just about everything (but especially critical of potential allies). The target of the most venemous attacks is “ABB” — those who wanted anybody but Bush. Ultra-left nonsense, in my opinion.

Nonetheless, marxmail moderator Louis Proyect tries to keep the sectarianism and ad hominem attacks to a minimum. (Proyect also writes essays and good movie reviews which he self-publishes on the web.)

I had wondered whether any Marxists had come to terms with environmental issues such as global warming and Peak Oil. Searching through the marxmail archives, I found a few Marxists who wrote interesting pieces (see Eco-marxist links). Not surprisingly, many of the pieces were published in Monthly Review, a non-sectarian socialist magazine, probably the finest publication that American Marxism has ever produced.

On the down side, even the best of the pieces don’t have much new to say about the environment. It turns out that Marx incorporated insights from the chemist and soil scientist Liebig into his analysis of the contradiction between city and country. In brief, farmers deprive their land of the nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous contained in the produce they ship to the city. The nutrients are excreted by the city population and cause pollution. Somehow, the nutrients should be returned to the land in which the crops are grown. A very important insight, but one that subsequent Marxism did not develop.

Other articles, like those by Stan Goff, incorporate the ideas of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Interesting, but no real advance over Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen who first introduced this line of thought.

A barrier to most people is the Marxist jargon in which the pieces are written. Terms like “means of production,” “dialectic,” “contradictions” mean nothing unless you’ve fallen under the spell of Das Kapital at some point in your life. I actually enjoy the jargon, just as I like using computer jargon, but I realize that it is a poor way to communicate to a large audience. Not to mention the fact that anything Marxist is taboo in American intellectual discourse, outside of a few inbred groups.

I accept the thesis of John Bellamy Foster that Marx and Engels had some thoughts relevant to environmentalism. But in general, if one wants to learn about ecology and the environment, one has to look elsewhere than Marxism.

If economic turmoil comes, Marxism will probably return to influence and the eco-Marxists may be seen as the beginnings of a red-green synthesis.