Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ Category


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?”


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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.

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Green vs Brown

I’ve been thinking about the difference between the Green and the Brown worldviews. I’m beginning to see a polarity, a conflict, that may be the big conflict of this century.

How could I describe the conflict concisely? Small, decentralized communities vs power and hierarchies.

Surprisingly, I don’t think that nature is the key factor. Few people seriously argue against nature. We all love nature. The argument is always: “We are sorry, but we need to sacrifice nature for the benefit of humans.”

I think the root motivation is social: to maintain one’s place in the human hierarchy or to climb higher. Greed, for example, is not the physiological desire for more food (there is only so much you can eat), or for the pure pleasure of owning clothes, houses, and possessions. It is the social status that accrues.

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This Saturday, I went to hear a talk in Berkeley on “Liquid Gold” by Carol Steinfeld. She’s written a book on the subject ( Liquid Gold),

“Liquid Gold: How to Use Urine to Grow Plants (Safely!)”

…Every day, we urinate nutrients that can fertilize plants that could be used for beautiful landscapes, food, fuel, and fiber. Instead, these nutrients are flushed away, either to be treated at high cost or discharged to waters where they overfertilize and choke off aquatic life. Join us for a lighthearted but practical talk about how urine – which contains most of the nutrients in domestic wastewater and usually carries no disease risk – can be utilized as a resource. We’ll discuss three ways to grow away urine – composting, urine-graywater system, and urine fertilizing – safely and without odors. We’ll make a small urine-graywater planter and look at ways to make easy, inexpensive urine-diverting composting toilets.

I did more research and found some good resources on web. The idea of re-using urine and feces is compelling. See eco-san.

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