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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!

Eco-Marxists

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.

I was just getting underway with the blog in 2004, so the entries are rough and unfinished. They read more like notes than like finished pieces. I promise… I will clean them up! [January 12: I’ve cleaned up about half the entries.]

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.

Slowly I seem to be recovering my enthusiasm for gardening and other projects.
I’m not sure why I got burned out. Maybe because I always tackle too much at once. In any case, I’ve been reading about traditional gardening and Gertrude Jekyll.

Gertrude Jekyll, aka “Bump”

One problem with Gertrude Jekyll and the English landscape designers — at least for me — is that their history is intertwined with the rich and privileged. Even that would be okay, except for the tremendous snobbery and condescension. The lack of any awareness that there is a problem with living off a peasantry. As her biography admits, she was a great snob.

On the other hand, one cannot avoid admiring Gertrude’s productivity and what she accomplished. Her taste is impeccable. Many of the values she held are good values (tradition, nature, etc.). Is this the Tory view of the countryside? I don’t know English history and culture well enough — thank God! My ignorance enables me to appreciate the good about Gertrude Jekyll without having the emotional reactions a native would.

Sometime I’d like to write about the way that Gertrude taught herself one craft after another. Amazing discipline and talent.

Apparently, she was quite a formidable figure. What humanized her for me was her long relationship with the much younger Edwin Lutyens, the famous country architect. With Lutyens, she was able to unbend; he called her “Bump” and teased her playfully. At the same time, they collaborated on many projects and influenced each other’s craft. It’s the sort of relationship that is unfamiliar to us in our cynical, overt times.

Some interesting facts about Gertrude’s family. Her brother Walter was a Church of England cleric who was unfrocked because of his radical views (I wonder what they were?). He moved to Jamaica, became a Buddhist, collected folklore, and served as mentor to Jamaican/American writer Claude McKay (“Jamica’s poet laureate”).

In England, he had been a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, and there is speculation that he lent the Jekyll name for Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Also, there was a nephew, Francis Jekyll (nickname Timmy), who was a figure in the first English folk music revival and wrote a biography of his famous aunt. His personal life, however, sounds sad — dominated by severe depression.

Reculer pour mieux salter

Reading about Gertrude Jekyll makes me think about my direction. There’s something in her life that is a bracing tonic for us moderns. Her “environmentalism,” expressed as a love of traditional crafts and the countryside, came from within, from deep personal needs. It pushed her to productivity and creation. In contrast, the modern impulse might be to join a group, take a class, become an activist.

Is there anything wrong with the modern approaches? No, not in themselves. What’s wrong is what is missing — the personal, the family-ar, the unique point of view. One can’t imagine Gertrude Jekyll taking her opinions from the Web, from environmental magazines, or from anywhere in the media. There is a strength that comes from standing on the earth, from being in touch with something deep.

How does this look in practice? Staying in one place. Attachment to people, places, and customs, especially to the homely and non-commercial. Attachment to land. Gardens. Landscapes. One’s personal history.

Not being so quick to jump into group activities. Instead, commiting to a few connections of high quality.Not letting one’s life fill up with trivia and detritus.

The distinction I’m making here does not correspond to the environmentalist/mainstream, left/right or urban/rural dichotomies.

It’s an awareness of who one is, where one came from, what one’s place on earth is. It’s neither brash nor apologetic. As one begins to value tradition and nature, one becomes vulnerable, as so much in the modern world seeks to destroy or exploit these values.

Certain things kill these values: TV, modern movies, modern magazines,

Liquid Gold

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.