Tuesday, December 18, 2007


The previous post really got me thinking about why we seem to be so stuck and I began writing about it over at the terra preta bio-energy forum. I turned a few email messages into a mental meander. Here goes....

Politics has its ways to distort both logic and market forces. For example, the most recent US energy bill avoided two opportunities to guide business as usual into new directions. One would have required utilities to generate an increasing share of their power from renewable sources like wind. The other would have rolled back about $12 billion in tax breaks granted to the oil companies in the last energy bill and used the proceeds to help develop cleaner fuels and new energy technologies.

That's politics as usual. But, I believe there's an even deeper "logic" at work: the industrial age paradigm generates both profits and progress from resource extraction and disregard for waste. It approaches limits through depletions and pollutions. It generates a zero-sum politics of scarcity. Viewed from the perspective of the earth, the human race is a vast collection of "haves" and "have-nots" in a process of taking and wasting and fighting for the spoils. This is the field on which business-as-usual plays. The rich get richer, and so on....

I keep thinking that there is another logic deeply embedded in the terra preta model. Rather than a one-way taking from the earth by the human race, it presents the possibility of reciprocities that have not been part of the previous industrial paradigm. In essence, it shows a view from the earth which says that by capturing and converting waste into soil, we the human race may enter a process of giving and using. This, in turn, presents a potential for moving us from exhaustion toward abundance and generates a new playing field for business-as-usual. It suggests the possibility of truly sustainable abundance and a system in which all get richer.

Kevin Chisholm responded, saying "Politics is the Art of having Benefits diverted to one sector of Society, and Costs diverted to another."

Which got me thinking...

A long time ago when I used to teach political science in the university it was popular to say that politics was about "who gets what, when and how" or that it was about "whose ox gets gored." Looking at Bali, for example, it seems like these definitions still have reasonable descriptive power. Looking at the US Congress, these views of politics have extraordinary descriptive power. Put together a coalition of Midwest farmers, oil and auto companies and you get E85. There's just no other way to explain a huge subsidy for corn ethanol.

And when we consider that the top 20 or so developed economies collectively subsidize their agricultures at the level of $1 Billion PER DAY we can see the magnitude of the challenge of changing a complex institutionalized system. I say all this not to condemn politics per se. Replacing politics with either the market or a benevolent dictator or the IPCC scientists also will bring forth distortions from the ideal outcome.

Why is this, why are the distortions so predictable? I have a suspicion that it's because there is usually a hidden assumption buried in the good intentions of the problem-solvers and reformers -- namely, that human nature must and can change. I think you know the drill -- we must become more compassionate, less competitive, more altruistic, less greedy, less consuming, less wasteful, etc, etc. And then the inevitable happens... we turn out to still be human. Thus, I have often wondered if it might be possible to devise a system that honored our humanness and somehow worked.

One example that has always intrigued me is the
the Potlatch or Giveaway ceremonies practiced among the tribal peoples of the North American Pacific Northwest. Although it is easy to romanticize the Potlatch as an example of altruism, it really is not. Rather, it is a very complex system for determining and maintaining the status and prestige of different families within the tribe. Usually, it is performed under notions of reciprocity but among some tribes it has also been known to be very competitive, where a family will "insult" another family by demonstrating its ability to give way or waste more than the competition.

Just imagine a young type A aggressive male wanting recognition, power and the attentions of the lovely maiden. He displays his worth, not through accumulation of stored stuff but through his ability to give it away. Thus, a very human trait gets channeled into something that is, in consequence, a collective benefit. It works, I believe, in no small part because it honors human nature rather than seeking to change it.

And what is the human nature that forms our present global predicament? We multiply. We consume. We waste. And the reformers' programs sound like... Multiply less. Consume less. Waste less. These ARE important goals but we often find much to our chagrin that for every 'enlightened soul' who 'evolves' there are 10 waiting in line anxious to acquire the bad habits. Even where reproduction is decreased, the motive is often that fewer children to provide for means that more stuff can be acquired. Markets receive the message and are quick to respond. And it is all buttressed by politics and business and human nature.

I believe there are two ways out, harder and softer.

The harder way is that we continue to deplete the earth's resources and deposit our wastes into the wrong places up until the point where a stressed planet strikes back with a crash that imposes fewer numbers, survival behaviors and a new evolutionary path forged out of much conflict and suffering.

The softer way is to become more fully human by learning how to cycle our humanness no longer into ecosystem depletion but into renewal and restoration for both people and nature. The beautiful possibility is that terra preta may hold the secret of turning our wastefulness into a resource that allows for a better outcome from a business and a politics and a human nature as usual.

The old saw that "it matters not so much what you do but how you do it" may hold the deeper truth. The secret of abundance may lie in the giveaway. Google is proving this daily within the info-sphere. Terra Preta may prove it within the eco-sphere. Really, it isn't so much about giving or taking but more about where and how we leave the residues.

Respectfully, I would like to suggest that this is a revolutionary shift -- a sea change -- that requires a leap of faith. It may turn out that consciousness-as-usual is what needs to be changed -- from faith in taking to faith in giving and from faith in scarcity to faith in abundance.

We have quite a song to sing. Let's do it.

OK, that's my-your-our dream.


Jose Murilo said...

It's a good take. Isn't it ecology thinking after all? I'd rather see images illustrating your point.

Lou Gold said...

Yes! More illustrations are needed. I'm heading to Acre with my camera on Friday. It's a good challenge. Ecology focuses how everything is connected while photos tend to capture the pieces.