Monday, June 30, 2008


Peter Menzel - Material World

In a recent post I showed some of the marvelous photos from a book called "Hungry Planet" by Pete Menzel who is an incredible photographer with much more to show us. His book on Material World consumption (pictured above) is outstanding. Food, fuel, folks and stuff are all connected in our ever-shrinking world where some have and some don't and most appear to either need or want more.

Now, globalization has brought something new -- a novel (to us) reality has emerged as the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are racing into previously only-dreamed-of opportunities for economic development. Brazil, for example, is expecting an OPEC invitation because its newly discovered off-shore oil fields are among the largest reserves in the world. It is also emerging as the one of the leading global ethanol and food exporters. And all of this is being done by enhancing and further developing US-style energy and agricultural practices to a previously unimagined scale. For example, consider the fact that an average US Midwest farm is about 600-1000 acres in size whereas the new Mato Grosso farms in Brazil are averaging 20,000 acres in size -- that's 20,000 acres of intensive petro-chemical agriculture. And both country and city people are quite enamored of the opportunities for material consumption that the new prosperity may bring.

They are not going to be receptive to our preaching about how they need to do it in better ways unless that same "we" who set the bar are prepared to compensate them seriously for any lost or avoided economic opportunities. Brazil's Minister for Strategic Planning Roberto Mangabeira Unger put it succinctly, "We are taken aback by those who scold us, who warn us, since we see countries around the world that are talking from a high chair after having devastated their own forests."

Although the issue of "developed world" arrogance is not limited to its much-touted desire to save the rainforest, looking at the forest gives a most graphic comparison: the US presently has less than 10% of its original primary forests left while Brazil still has 80% remaining. And, it is very clear now that agricultural policies in the US (for example) have a tremendous impact on Amazônia in Brazil. Yet, the US has refused to take even minimal steps toward dealing with either deforestation or climate change. These contradictions contribute to a widespread popular distrust that the US and Europe are not really concerned about the forest but, instead, may be trying to capture its resources for themselves. Or, while giving lip-service to saving the rainforest, they are in fact (see links below) supporting policies that contribute to its destruction.

Global Commodities Boom Fuels New Assault on Amazon

Obama Camp Closely Linked With Ethanol

However, when it comes to the culture of runaway material consumption, the US has been the class leader, closely followed by western Europe and Japan. I do not find blame in this, we were simply the first to bat. But now we must face the developing world stepping up to the plate with an agenda of rising out of poverty and much more. They are starting to prosper and this is changing the old notion that "we" (the rich nations) have a moral obligation to help "them" (the poorer nations). It is becoming less about helping them and more about helping ourselves -- not to grab resources but to minimize the negative ecological consequences of the new reality of world economic development.

In the words of the columnist Roger Cohen, the world is being stood on its head. Very soon the BRIC nations are going to be determining our global future. Cohen points out that there is currently a $46.6 billion bid by a Belgian-Brazilian company for Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser. Can you imagine American Bud being owned by Brazil? The Brazilians can imagine it easily because their own leading beer and soft-drink conglomerates have been owned by Coca-cola and Pepsi for years. But now the world is changing, in previously unimagined ways. The World is Upside Down is a must read for anyone wanting to think of the future.

The Pax Americana empire that was established by US military dominance at the end of WWII and the subsequent US technological and trade dominance have brought to Americans the highest standard of living ever known on earth and also set the bar for the hopes and dreams for material advancement of much of the rest of the world.

Today the BRIC nations see great opportunity in doing things in a more efficient version of the established pattern of extracting, exploiting, producing, marketing and depleting. Can we expect them to do otherwise unless they are shown better practices being put into operation in the developed world? Can we expect them to adopt new practices unless the emergent "greener" technologies are shared and subsidized for the developing world.

Why should the developed world do this? For altruism or compassion or for doing good? No, they should do it for their own self-interest. If we want a world of people living more in balance with the earth we of the world of luxury are going to have face down-sizing whether we want to or not.

If we want the emerging economies to embrace a better planned, less wasteful and less disruptive (to us) path of development than we did (to them), we will have to offer a more meaningful route out of poverty and into prosperity. In other words, we will have to help each other. And what is it that we hold in common that might help us do this? It's the earth.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


With the world food crisis very much in the news it seems appropriate to repost these powerful photos and statistics.

Chad - Family Food
Chad: The Aboubakar family of Breidjing Camp
Food expenditure for one week: 685 CFA Francs or $1.23

Bhutan - Family Food
Bhutan: The Namgay family of Shingkhey Village
Food expenditure for one week: 224.93 ngultrum or $5.03

Ecuador - Family Food
Ecuador: The Ayme family of Tingo
Food expenditure for one week: $31.55

Egypt - Family Food
Egypt: The Ahmed family of Cairo
Food expenditure for one week: 387.85 Egyptian Pounds or $68.53

Poland - Family Food
Poland: The Sobczynscy family of Konstancin-Jeziorna
Food expenditure for one week: 582.48 Zlotys or $151.27

Mexico - Family Food
Mexico: The Casales family of Cuernavaca
Food expenditure for one week: 1,862.78 Mexican Pesos or $189.09

Italy - Family Food
Italy: The Manzo family of Sicily
Food expenditure for one week: 214.36 Euros or $260.11

United States - Family Food
United States: The Revis family of North Carolina
Food expenditure for one week $341.98

Germany - Family Food
Germany: The Melander family of Bargteheide
Food expenditure for one week: 375.39 Euros or $500.07

The photos are from a book called "Hungry Planet" by Pete Menzel. You can find out more about his photo essays through this article from NPR's Michele Norris. Many thanks to Dande Tavares for sending me this link.

[UPDATE: In going over these photos for the 4th or 5th time, I can't help but notice that the smaller the family size is the larger is the consumption of processed food as well as the per capita amount. In other words, the smaller families are leaving a much larger footprint than the larger ones. Something to think about.]

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Md Rita (6-19-05)
Md Rita in Mapia (6-19-05)

Today is the 83rd birthday of Md. Rita who is the matriarch of the Sebastião Mota de Melo line of the Santo Daime religious movement.

Here are a few pictures from her grand 80th birthday celebration on 25 June 2005 in Mapia.

Md Rita - Sign (6-25-05)

Md Rita & Cake (6-25-05)

Md Rita - (6-25-05)

Click here for more photos from Md Rita's 80th birthday celebration.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Iran Map

The news for the last several days has been full of saber-rattling in the Middle East, including suggestion of a preemptive attack.

Winston Churchill, who was known for his courageous leadership, was once asked by an interviewer if he was afraid of anything? Churchill answered, "Yes... events!"

Let's pray for the blessing of a peaceful outcome.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Keep It Simple Stupid

My friend and mentor Pad Luiz Mendes likes to say that the way out of confusion, the true key to tranquility, is simplicity. There are some extraordinary teachers in the world who have that special gift of making it simple. One of my favorites is Oren Lyons who is a traditional Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Iroquois Confederacy. Somehow, I never tire of hearing him speak. I just found this on YouTube.

There's really no more to say.

Is the Obama Camp Closely Linked With Corn Ethanol?


If NY Times reporter Larry Rohter is correct, this is VERY disturbing news. Corn ethanol is probably worse for the environment, worse for global warming, worse for tropical deforestation and worse for world hunger than is the use of conventional petroleum.

The premier tropical rainforest website MONGABAY has a series of excellent articles on corn ethanol. Are these just the rantings of rainforest treehuggers? Absolutely not. Last week Nestle Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe said in an editorial published in the Wall Street Journal Asia that biofuels made from food crops are "ethically indefensible".

OK, I'm an Obama supporter but I am truly shaken by this. Somehow there is an uncomfortable pragmatic political parallel with the election politics that were facing Brazil's President Lula during his last campaign where it was necessary to cut a deal with Soy King and Mato Grosso State Governor Blair Maggi to provide a paved road to the Amazon port of Santarem in order to gain critical political support at a time when Lula had been made weak and vulnerable by the scandals running through his administration and political party. This "infrastructure improvement" and others like it are today the greatest challenge to the Amazon forest.

For the political parallel in the US presidential election, one need only to remember the absolutely critical role played by the Iowa State primary caucuses in propelling Barack Obama from an "also running" candidate into Hillary Clinton's most serious challenger. Iowa is ground zero for global corn ethanol production. The Obama camp may have have opened the door to the US Presidency through those rows of corn.

Here is Rohter's full article:

When VeraSun Energy inaugurated a new ethanol processing plant last summer in Charles City, Iowa, some of that industry’s most prominent boosters showed up. Leaders of the National Corn Growers Association and the Renewable Fuels Association, for instance, came to help cut the ribbon — and so did Senator Barack Obama.

Then running far behind Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in name recognition and in the polls, Mr. Obama was in the midst of a campaign swing through the state where he would eventually register his first caucus victory. And as befits a senator from Illinois, the country’s second largest corn-producing state, he delivered a ringing endorsement of ethanol as an alternative fuel.

Mr. Obama is running as a reformer who is seeking to reduce the influence of special interests. But like any other politician, he has powerful constituencies that help shape his views. And when it comes to domestic ethanol, almost all of which is made from corn, he also has advisers and prominent supporters with close ties to the industry at a time when energy policy is a point of sharp contrast between the parties and their presidential candidates.

In the heart of the Corn Belt that August day, Mr. Obama argued that embracing ethanol “ultimately helps our national security, because right now we’re sending billions of dollars to some of the most hostile nations on earth.” America’s oil dependence, he added, “makes it more difficult for us to shape a foreign policy that is intelligent and is creating security for the long term.”

Nowadays, when Mr. Obama travels in farm country, he is sometimes accompanied by his friend Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader from South Dakota. Mr. Daschle now serves on the boards of three ethanol companies and works at a Washington law firm where, according to his online job description, “he spends a substantial amount of time providing strategic and policy advice to clients in renewable energy.”

Mr. Obama’s lead advisor on energy and environmental issues, Jason Grumet, came to the campaign from the National Commission on Energy Policy, a bipartisan initiative associated with Mr. Daschle and Bob Dole, the Kansas Republican who is also a former Senate majority leader and a big ethanol backer who had close ties to the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland.

Not long after arriving in the Senate, Mr. Obama himself briefly provoked a controversy by flying at subsidized rates on corporate airplanes, including twice on jets owned by Archer Daniels Midland, which is the nation’s largest ethanol producer and is based in his home state.

Jason Furman, the Obama campaign’s economic policy director, said Mr. Obama’s stance on ethanol was based on its merits. “That is what has always motivated him on this issue, and will continue to determine his policy going forward,” Mr. Furman said.

Asked if Mr. Obama brought any predisposition or bias to the ethanol debate because he represents a corn-growing state that stands to benefit from a boom, Mr. Furman said, “He wants to represent the United States of America, and his policies are based on what’s best for the country.”

Mr. Daschle, a national co-chairman of the Obama campaign, said in a telephone interview on Friday that his role advising the Obama campaign on energy matters was limited. He said he was not a lobbyist for ethanol companies, but did speak publicly about renewable energy options and worked “with a number of associations and groups to orchestrate and coordinate their activities,” including the Governors’ Ethanol Coalition.

Of Mr. Obama, Mr. Daschle said, “He has a terrific policy staff and relies primarily on those key people to advise him on key issues, whether energy or climate change or other things.”

Ethanol is one area in which Mr. Obama strongly disagrees with his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona. While both presidential candidates emphasize the need for the United States to achieve “energy security” while also slowing down the carbon emissions that are believed to contribute to global warming, they offer sharply different visions of the role that ethanol, which can be made from a variety of organic materials, should play in those efforts.

Mr. McCain advocates eliminating the multibillion-dollar annual government subsidies that domestic ethanol has long enjoyed. As a free trade advocate, he also opposes the 54-cent-a-gallon tariff that the United States slaps on imports of ethanol made from sugar cane, which packs more of an energy punch than corn-based ethanol and is cheaper to produce.

“We made a series of mistakes by not adopting a sustainable energy policy, one of which is the subsidies for corn ethanol, which I warned in Iowa were going to destroy the market” and contribute to inflation, Mr. McCain said this month in an interview with a Brazilian newspaper, O Estado de São Paulo. “Besides, it is wrong,” he added, to tax Brazilian-made sugar cane ethanol, “which is much more efficient than corn ethanol.”

Mr. Obama, in contrast, favors the subsidies, some of which end up in the hands of the same oil companies he says should be subjected to a windfall profits tax. In the name of helping the United States build “energy independence,” he also supports the tariff, which some economists say may well be illegal under the World Trade Organization’s rules but which his advisers say is not.

Many economists, consumer advocates, environmental experts and tax groups have been critical of corn ethanol programs as a boondoggle that benefits agribusiness conglomerates more than small farmers. Those complaints have intensified recently as corn prices have risen sharply in tandem with oil prices and corn normally used for food stock has been diverted to ethanol production.

“If you want to take some of the pressure off this market, the obvious thing to do is lower that tariff and let some Brazilian ethanol come in,” said C. Ford Runge, an economist specializing in commodities and trade policy at the Center for International Food and Agricultural Policy at the University of Minnesota. “But one of the fundamental reasons biofuels policy is so out of whack with markets and reality is that interest group politics have been so dominant in the construction of the subsidies that support it.”

Corn ethanol generates less than two units of energy for every unit of energy used to produce it, while the energy ratio for sugar cane is more than 8 to 1. With lower production costs and cheaper land prices in the tropical countries where it is grown, sugar cane is a more efficient source.

Mr. Furman said the campaign continued to examine the issue. “We want to evaluate all our energy subsidies to make sure that taxpayers are getting their money’s worth,” he said.

He added that Mr. Obama favored “a range of initiatives” that were aimed at “diversification across countries and sources of energy,” including cellulosic ethanol, and which, unlike Mr. McCain’s proposals, were specifically meant to “reduce overall demand through conservation, new technology and improved efficiency.”

On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama has not explained his opposition to imported sugar cane ethanol. But in remarks last year, made as President Bush was about to sign an ethanol cooperation agreement with his Brazilian counterpart, Mr. Obama argued that “our country’s drive toward energy independence” could suffer if Mr. Bush relaxed restrictions, as Mr. McCain now proposes.

“It does not serve our national and economic security to replace imported oil with Brazilian ethanol,” he argued.

Mr. Obama does talk regularly about developing switchgrass, which flourishes in the Midwest and Great Plains, as a source for ethanol. While the energy ratio for switchgrass and other types of cellulosic ethanol is much greater than corn, economists say that time-consuming investments in infrastructure would be required to make it viable, and with corn nearing $8 a bushel, farmers have little incentive to shift.

Ethanol industry executives and advocates have not made large donations to either candidate for president, an examination of campaign contribution records shows. But they have noted the difference between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain.

Brian Jennings, a vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol, said he hoped that Mr. McCain, as a presidential candidate, “would take a broader view of energy security and recognize the important role that ethanol plays.”

The candidates’ views were tested recently in the Farm Bill approved by Congress that extended the subsidies for corn ethanol, though reducing them slightly, and the tariffs on imported sugar cane ethanol. Because Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama were campaigning, neither voted. But Mr. McCain said that as president he would veto the bill, while Mr. Obama praised it.

David Brooks' recent piece on The Two Obamas is making a lot of sense.







Here is the full repost of the Andrew Revkin's post at NY Times DOT EARTH

June 22, 2008, 10:24 pm

NASA’s Hansen: Humans Still Loading Climate Dice
By Andrew C. Revkin

Twenty years ago on Monday, James E. Hansen testified before the Senate Energy Committee — in a room kept intentionally warm by committee staff — that the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels and forests was already perceptibly influencing Earth’s climate.

Then, as now, Dr. Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, was pushing beyond what many of his colleagues in climatology were willing to say — at least publicly. His supporters say that, given how science and events appear to be catching up with his projections of two decades ago, the world had better heed his new recommendations. His critics show few signs of ever accommodating the ideas he now presses, which include a prompt moratorium on new coal-burning power plants until they can capture and store carbon dioxide and a rising tax on fuels contributing greenhouse-gas emissions, with the revenue passed back directly to citizens, avoiding the complexities of “cap and trade” bills.

I encourage you to watch the nine-minute video above, which I shot while interviewing Dr. Hansen in his cluttered office on Friday. Here’s the print story. He says that 2009 may present the last chance we have to defuse what he calls the “global warming time bomb.”

The video begins with his explanation of a visual aid he created in 1988 with Jose Mendoza, an illustrator at Goddard in the days before PowerPoint: a pair of cardboard dice showing how humans were tipping the odds toward climate troubles. Notably, perhaps because of old glue, the paper black dots were falling off.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

25 Years Later -- A Solstice Reflection

Happy Solstice! It's that time again -- summer in the States and winter in Brazil -- and I'm feeling a bit nostalgic remembering all the marvelous ceremonies and rituals honoring the forest and wild places that I have shared with so many friends across many years. Most were of a spiritual nature, but not all. Indeed, my own initiation to being a disciple of the forest began with a very political act.

Bald Mtn Blockade
Bald Mountain Blockade. An early group of "ecodefenders" (I'm 3rd from the left). Photo by David Cross.

It was 25 years ago last month -- in May 1983 -- that a group of activists sat in front of the bulldozers that were building a new road into the still wild regions of the Siskiyou National Forest in southern Oregon. Even though I was new to Oregon at that time -- I had recently arrived from Illinois -- my heart was captured and I had the great privilege of being part of the national movement to save the remnant Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest. Following those first "actions" in the woods I committed myself to the Bald Mountain Vigil and being the Siskiyou Project Storyteller.

I think I had the greatest job in the world. I actually got to camp in an old-growth forest paradise for 12 full summers, receiving visitors and maintaining a prayer circle atop the mountain.

Lou in Bald Mountain Prayer Circle
Bald Mountain prayer circle. Photo by Dan Dancer.

At the end of each summer I would come down from the mountain to travel around the country as the-hermit-with-the-most-frequent-flier-awards offering "Lessons From the Ancient Forest" and being the storyteller that I had always wanted to be, doing all this in order to recruit support for "the great standing ones."

The "Grandma-Grandpa tree" on Bald Mountain is one of the largest Douglas Firs in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Barbara Ullian.

Looking back on it all now, my role as storyteller feels almost "too privileged." Those were rather heady times full of youthful courage that included both risks and excesses that the media loved to portray as the "war in the woods". The following video was put together and posted with a story on My Space by Andy Caffery .

1987 War in the Woods

As the struggles continued on the ground and in the trees, the locally-based Siskiyou Project began the tasks of building a network, reaching out to mainstream organizations and establishing a vibrant relationship with the scientific and university communities. Within a few years Jay Hair (who had made the highly critical comments in the above video) and led the powerful National Wildlife Federation had become one of our strongest allies. And so had other mainstream organizations such as the Wilderness Society and WWF. They were all promoting the cause of the Ancient Forest and helping us defenders of the Siskiyou gain access to the halls of Congress.

But there was truly much more. Although my slideshow had begun at first as storytelling about my own Bald Mountain experiences, it had grown into a sort of documentary about the incredibly rich and diverse Ancient Forest movement which had expanded across the country and inspired people in far and distant places. Saving the Ancient Forests quickly became a movement and a network beyond any particular voice -- a WE. I simply had the job of telling some parts of the story. Being a voice in this forest WE was one of the greatest privileges in my life.

The Siskiyou Project grew quickly and had many accomplishments -- you can read about some of its history here. By 2001 it had grown into quite a family.

Siskiyou Project & Friends 2001
bottom row: David Johns, Kelpie Wilson, Julie Norman, Shannon Cleary, Lou Gold, Sue Parrish, Lori Cooper, Linda Serrano, Dave Willis, Romain Cooper.
top row: Steve Marsden, Bob Litak, Marjorie Reynolds, Rich Nawa, Jim Gurley, Barry Snitkin, Erik Jules, Rolf Skar, Kindi Fahrnkopf, Barbara Ullian.

Everyone was important to the Project's successes but I'd like to acknowledge a special debt of gratitude to Marybeth Howell who networked my tour, to Kelpie Wilson who guided and developed the project through its formative years and to Dave Willis who used to send surprise CARE packages of cookies to sustain me on the road.

Nowadays, the Siskiyou Project has become two organizations:

The Siskiyou Field Institute (SFI) has happily announced the long-anticipated acquisition of the 870 acre Deer Creek Ranch near Selma, Oregon where, in partnership with Southern Oregon University, it is developing an exciting Education and Field Research Station.

The Siskiyou Project team has continued with its wonderful staff to advocate and innovate for the forests and streams of the region. Recently, it announced another kind of "radicalism" -- an experiment with stewardship in which previous protagonists -- loggers, restoration ecologists, forest defenders and public managers -- will come together to jointly manage a 2000 acre forest restoration project. Local journalist Paul Fattig -- who across the years wrote many "War in the Woods" articles -- has offered a new headline in the Medford Mail Tribune: Evolution in the Woods.

The most exciting recent news is that the Oregon Democratic Congressional delegation, under the leadership of Representative Peter DeFazio and Senator Ron Wyden, has introduced a series of new bills which would create new Wilderness Areas, expand the Oregon Caves National Monument and protect 143 miles of tributaries of the Rogue River.

There's an interesting side story here. Back in late 1995 there was a special election to fill the recently vacated Senate seat of Republican Bob Packwood who had been forced to resign as a result of a sexual harassment scandal. In an ill-considered move I entered the race as a candidate of the local green party. It turned out not to be a very good move -- the election was terribly close and if I actively campaigned there was the possibly that it could throw the election to the Republican who was no friend of the forest. But my name was already on the ballot so all I could do was to refuse to do any active campaigning. I still received some votes (about 7,000) but it was not enough to matter and Ron Wyden was narrowly elected.

Nevertheless, Wyden's Republican opponent Gordon Smith did manage to get elected to the other Oregon Senate seat a few years later. In recent years Smith has been a staunch supporter of the Bush agenda and a foe of forest protection. Meanwhile, Senator Wyden (as a result of the Democratic victories in the 2006 elections) has become chairman of the Senate committee that handles Wilderness bills where he has been facilitating the new protective legislation.

And only a few days ago he declared his opposition to any more logging of old-growth trees in Federal Forests. I'm sure that there's still a lot of negotiating over the details of a new forest plan -- especially so that it secures the younger forests which are the future old-growth -- but for now, all I can say is, GO FOR IT RON!

Meanwhile, you can really help move the new protections through the US Congress. Please use this easy form to send a Save the Wild Rogue! message to Congress. And please note -- you do not have to be a US citizen to support protecting these forests. They are a world-class treasure!

Hey, nothing more to say other than thanks for your support for the forests, and please continue to tune into the work and campaigns of the Siskiyou Project or any of the many grassroots organizations in the forest movement.

Happy Solstice.
Hug a tree and blessed be.


There's a brand new talk about endangered cultures from master storyteller Wade Davis. But before we get into it, I'd like to make a little diversion into the nature of story. Personally, I don't think that storytelling has a very high status in modern (adult) culture. Often you hear the question put like this: "Is that a fact or is it just a story?"

I believe that this common expression completely misses the point and, worse yet, hides from our view the true powers of story. Let me explain:

The Pawnee Indians have a very interesting way to distinguish between a true story and a false one. They do not make a moral judgment about "true" or "false". Instead, they say that a "false story" is one that is told for entertainment or for the aggrandizement of the storyteller and a "true story" is one that helps people learn something important for their lives. The most intriguing aspect is that one can create a "false story" entirely out of facts and a "true story" entirely out of fictions.

Here's an example: there are deep water oil reserves to be found below the shelves off the US coast. Most assessments say that the deposits are not huge, that it would take many years to develop them (shortage of drilling ships, etc), and that gasoline prices are much more the result of global supply and demand than anything else. These are the facts. Now place these facts into the story context of $2 per gallon gasoline (and relative economic stability) in the US and you get to maintain the ban on new off-short drilling. Place the same facts into the story context of $4 per gallon gasoline (and threatening economic uncertainty) and you get a serious attempt to lift the ban on off-shore drilling. The facts have not changed -- only the story and the intentions of the political storytellers during an election year.

Thus, without in anyway wanting to diminish the importance of discovering the facts -- Iraq and WMDs come to mind -- I want submit for your consideration that the story context surrounding our sense of who we are and what is our relationship with other peoples and the earth will be the most important determinant of the when's and how's of using (or not) our incredible technologies as we face a difficult and uncertain future.

Today, in the global story context of food crises, peaking oil, water shortages, deforestation, resources wars and climate change, we need all the help that we can get. Perhaps, the starting position must be humility and respect for the ancient traditions which have been studying for a very long time the problem of how humans might fashion a life in harmony with our incredible planet.

Here is Wade Davis' new TED talk:


To the modern mind it may seem strange to hear of peoples who believe that their prayers and spiritual practices are what hold the world together but isn't this just another way of recognizing that we have become co-creators of our existence? And isn't the mystery of prayer not just to pray but to practice consciously our relationship with each other and the incredible world around us?

OK, I confess a conflict of interest that makes me less than a neutral objective observer -- I'm a storyteller. And you are too! What will be our story?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Black President Before Obama

This is the story now raging in Brazil. Even President Lula is talking about it. Jose Murilo has done a great job of rounding up the range of opinions being triggered in Brazil by a futuristic fantasy that seems to have anticipated Obama's candidacy.

Below is Jose Murilo's blogosphere report from Global Voices Online. The sections in italics are quotes from Brazilian bloggers.


The sweeping Obama phenomenon has caught Brazil, and it comes as no surprise in the country with the world's largest population of African descendants. Blogs are commenting on all things Obama, from his stand on ethanol to the ‘rumors‘ of his appraisal of Brazil's free software policies. An especially notable thread is the one reporting on the resurgence of a weirdly interesting 1928 Brazilian sci-fi novel — ‘The Black President' — that predicted a US election matching a black, a feminist, and a conservative candidate in the then remote year of 2228.

The author, Monteiro Lobato, is very famous in Brazil for his tales for children and teens. The set of books ‘Yellow Woodpecker Ranch‘ was turned into popular TV series that reigned supreme on Brazilian tubes through 5 different remakes — the first in 1952, and most recently in 2001. But, in this case, the book is an obscure and rare incursion of Lobato into adult science fiction. The resurgence of interest in it now is totally connected with what stands out as an incredible intuitive guesswork on what has come to be our present situation, but 80 years ago (!) almost unimaginable.

Most of the Brazilian readers of Monteiro Lobato (1882-1948) know him for the episodes of the ‘Yellow Woodpecker Ranch' series, and few are acquainted with his ‘adult piece'… Originally published in 1926 as a ‘feuilleton‘ in the newspaper ‘A Manhã', (but then titled as “The Clash of Races”, which today stands as the subtitle), “The Black President” is a doubly curious book: first for being a science fiction piece, an uncommon genre among Brazilian writers, and second because the plot anticipates the current scientific and intellectual debate during the first decades of the 20th century.
(Monteiro Lobato's Black President - ALPHARRÁBIO - por Viegas Fernandes da Costa)

The huge coincidence with the US elections was enough to turn “The Black President” into ‘cult' reading, although some other of Lobato's predictions, such as his description of the Internet, have also attracted the attention of commenters. The contorted political psychology of the triangle that binds the white male, the feminist, and the black candidate is also apparent.

‘The Black President' is a scary book. Frightening in many ways. Firstly, by the prescient character of the piece. In 1926, Lobato forecasts the invention of a kind of data radio transmission that would make it possible for human beings to accomplish their tasks from their home, without having to relocate to work. He also anticipates the disappearance of the printing press, for the news will be “radiated” directly to the houses of the individuals and will appear in bright letters on a screen — exactly how it is happening with whoever is reading this very text. [It is] in one modern word — the Internet. But the premonitions don't stop there. By the time he was moving to the US as commercial attaché at the Brazilian embassy, Monteiro Lobato foresaw the election of a black president in the US. The specific political moment in the year of 2228 that bore such a situation would be due to the split that occurred in the white race, between a candidate from the Masculine Party (Kerlog) and a candidate from the Feminine Party (Evelyn Astor). The neo-feminist Evelyn Astor has the victory almost guaranteed, but then the black leader Jim Roy surges and ends up being elected President.
(The Black President. A Scary Book - Acerto de Contas)

The wars were also finished, as soon as the War Ministries were replaced by the Peace Ministries. Despite that, the US is on the verge of descending into chaos and bloodbath on the eve of the election of its 88th president, such was the disruption caused by the contest. On one side, the millions of black voters are gathered to support Jim Roy, from the Black Association. On the other side, the white women who follow the Feminine Party candidate, long for Evelyn Astor. And finally, there are the white men, who prefer the reelection of Kerlog, from the Masculine Party, which surged from the merge of the Democrat and Republican parties. Here is the essential part of the plot: it is not only a clash of races, but also a war between the sexes. The white men, in order to get a ‘whiter' America, plan to send the blacks to the Amazon, which is not part of Brazil anymore [!]. Our country was divided in two independent nations: the north, of atavistic malemolencia, and the prosperous South, the “big Republic of Paraná”, which also includes Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
(Monteiro Lobato… A Prophet? - Resistência Democrática)

Even in some of his far-out references, Lobato seems to keep throwing light on images that, if not real, are quite recurrent to say the least. But, on a closer inspection, his plot reveals clearly that, although getting it right on the surface, his interpretation of the signals were often projections of weird concepts. In fact, what previously called attention to this book — prior to the current historical coincidence with the US elections — was the evidence of Lobato's sympathy with Eugenics, a racist social philosophy that acquired some followers in Brazil during the 20s and 30s, and advocates the improvement of human hereditary traits through various forms of intervention, mainly segregating races.

Miss Jane, Benson's daughter, is the one who gives voice to Lobato's ideas: “What is America if not the happy zone which right from the start has attracted the many elements from eugenics of the best European races? Where is the vital force of the white race located if not there?” While defending American segregation, he also has something to say about the Brazilian miscegenation: “Our solution was shabby. We ruined both races, by merging them. The blacks have lost their admirable wild physical qualities, and the whites have suffered the inevitable worsening of character as a consequence of the crossings among different races”.
(Racismo à Brasileira - Bravo Online)

Indeed, Obama is definitely not the black candidate of Lobato's tale, but rather the result of a political, cultural and genetic mix with whites. There is a core difference between the societal position of African descendants in Brazil (more mixed) and in the US (more separated), but Obama's surge is perceived by some Brazilians as the result of the 70s US affirmative action policies in which these social programs appear now as the game changer.

From a Brazilian perspective, the inevitable question that Afro-descendants are asking themselves now is what has made Obama's success possible in the US — with their 'segregation' and separatism — while an analogous situation in more mixed Brazil still looks like a distant dream, far from becoming a reality.

Against all the expectations that already have been here more than a hundred years, “blacks and mestizos will surpass the number of whites in this year of 2008″ in Brazil — “the country with the largest Afro-descendant population outside Africa”… These observations, followed by the finding that the country “does not have any black politician of national projection”, comes with reference to the campaign of Senator Barack Obama for the Presidency of United States… Lagging behind around fifty years in relation to the social conquests of the US black people, we heirs of the same plunder that permeated North American society (and from which Obama, we should make clear, is not a direct victim) are being forced to believe for more than 120 years that this country is “happily mixed and de-racialized”. There has never been segregation or any ku-klux-klan and [therefore] our inferiority is due only to economic problems and can be brought to nil with good schools and good school lunches for all.

In the developing debate over affirmative action and the different perspectives on quota schemes in Brazil it is quite natural to see Obama's success in terms of long-standing tensions, but the effects of his possible election may reverberate differently in the many different layers of culture. If he is elected, the deep psychology that underlies the appearance of such an archetypal persona in history will become a part of the social-political-cultural debate.

Some bloggers are aware of this Obama inherited complexity that is helping to transcend the obvious polarities.

When, years later, [Obama] condemned the Iraq War, his arguments where based on the conclusions he arrived at through his life. His parents tried to reinvent themselves by abandoning their traditions and, in the process, they lost their identities. Tradition is what binds a society together. Facing change, tradition will always resist. Change, in history, comes in slow steps. For him, there is some naivety in the idealistic American dream that ideas, by themselves, will cause big changes. Ideas are not enough. Barack Obama, as described by Larissa MacFarquhar in a New Yorker Magazine profile, ‘is deeply conservative'. Democracy could never be simply imposed in a country where it never existed.
(Who is Barack Obama, and what does he think? - Pedro Dória Weblog)

From Lobato's black president prevailing in a context of separation to the complex profile of Barack Obama in a world of emergent possibilities appears now as the measure of political change.

Go to Orginal at Global Voices Online

Monday, June 16, 2008


The US is finally catching on to the evils of corn-based ethanol.
AP is reporting that, according to the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, Republican presidential candidate John McCain has declared his opposition to subsidies for US corn-based ethanol and the protective tariffs against the much more efficient ethanol produced from sugarcane in Brazil. He also says he supports Brazil's proposed inclusion on an expanded United Nations Security Council

Hopefully, Barack Obama will soon join the global chorus against these absurd and terribly damaging subsidies. It's a no-brainer that only the economic advisers of the Bush Administration can miss. They are soft-pedaling this terrible blunder:

"But [according to the same report] White House economic advisers say corn-based ethanol is responsible for just 2 to 3 percent of the overall increase in food prices, which are up more than 40 percent this year over 2007."

McCain's opposition to subsidies for corn ethanol comes at critical moment. The floods in the Midwest have produced a broad threat to crops and it is important that there be no more diversion from food to fuel. This is essential for Americans, Brazilians and the rest of the world, all of which are facing soaring food prices and shortages.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The New York Times
Tuesday, June 3, 2008 Last Update: 10:58 PM ET

The 2008 Campaign



Marks the End of Epic Battle with Hillary

You know the rest. We've got a lot of work to do.



[UPDATE #1 ON THE CLINTON RESPONSE -- "No shame, no gain"]

[UPDATE #2 -- "Clinton to End Bid and Endorse Obama"

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

CO2 Going to 1,000 Parts Per Million


A few days ago the NY Times science reporter Andrew Revkin spoke with F. Sherwood Rowland, the atmospheric chemist from the University of California, Irvine, who shared a Nobel Prize for his work revealing the threat to the ozone layer. They met at the World Science Festival.

Revkin reports:

During a break, I asked Dr. Rowland two quick questions. The first: Given the nature of the climate and energy challenges, what is his best guess for the peak concentration of carbon dioxide?

(Keep in mind that various experts and groups have said risks of centuries of ecological and economic disruption rise with every step toward and beyond 450 parts per million, with some scientists, most notably James Hansen of NASA, saying the long-term goal should be returning the atmospheric concentration to 350 parts per million, a level passed in 1988.)

His answer? “1,000 parts per million,” he said.

My second question was, what will that look like?

“I have no idea,” Dr. Rowland said. He was not smiling.

So far there have been 130 or so comments at Revkin's DOT EARTH blog, ranging from the climate change deniers to those who feel that nuclear energy will solve all problems to neo-Malthusians who say that human beings have exceeded (or soon will exceed) the carrying capacity of the earth and nature is going to bust us for "being fruitful and multiplying."

Here are my thoughts:

There's a line from "The Man From LaMancha" where Pablo says to Don Quixote, "When the glass and the rock have a fight, it's going to be bad for the glass." If we see this as a simple carrying capacity issue -- people versus nature with inelastic limits -- then Malthus was right and we are in for a die-off just like the oft-observed natural dynamic of bloom and crash that governs the populations of other species. As an ecological and environmental storyteller, I used to believe in this narrative. Seeing what appeared as the futility of the human condition, I retired from activism into a delicious life of nature and spirit and beauty in Brazil.

Now I am getting pulled back.

The single thing that was the difference that made the difference for me was not the growing statistics of catastrophe but, rather, the discovery of the BBC Terra Preta de Indíos documentary which strongly suggested that there once was a people that had achieved 100s to 1000s of years of living in balance with their niche in the Amazon basin. No western civilization can make a claim of such harmony or longevity without spoiling the nest. It seemed that the Terra Preta trick was one of turning waste into resource and thus building an agriculture of reciprocity -- a way for human multiplication and wastefulness to increase abundance rather depleting the earth.

I know that much of this is speculative but I'm a "vision-guy" and the draw of this possibility was too great for me to ignore. The possibility of moving from the technologies of depletion toward the technologies of restoration may be the harbinger of moving from the age of scarcity into an age of abundance. I know that we have a long way to go. I know that this is not the history of the industrial age nor the history of the triumphant civilizations of conquest. But I nevertheless hold an ancient-future dream that, once we see beyond the filters of the cheap fossil-fueled industrial age, we will see that Malthus was wrong and that humans can discover a healing and harmonious connection with nature.

That's my shtick.

Terra Preta is now called biochar and there's talk of it all over the Internet. If you want to know more, Beyond Zero Emissions is a great place to start and if you're a gardener this new wiki Biochar FAQ was set up for you.

Sunday, June 01, 2008




[Note: With gratitude, this report is for Kevin.]

Last week the world was treated to extraordinary photographs emerging from Indian land in the Brazilian Amazon. In first picture above an Indian woman from the Xingu River menacingly waves her machete to say that the proposed Belo Monte hydroelectric project will cause her home to be lost. In the second photograph members of an unknown tribe in Acre state menacingly point their arrows at a government helicopter flying over their encampment to capture first photos. Both photos present icons of Indians saying to the developmental forces of modern civilization, GET LOST!!!!

That seems to be exactly what the media reports emerging from Brazil proceeded to do. First, the Brazilian mainstream media became totally obsessed with the fact that an engineer had become slashed in an obviously ritualized "attack" in a public gymnasium (see the live video) in which he could have been very seriously injured if that had been the Indians' intention. Picking up on the theme, Associated Press journalist Alan Clendenning reported that, "Mobs of Indians from different tribes surrounded Eletrobras engineer....", thus amplifying the message of violence and losing the deeper messages of the damaging consequences of dam building.

In the midst of the mainstream media torrent about the violence in Altimira, no one seemed to notice that the ever-alert blogger Altino Machado from Acre state, the online journal Terra Magazine and GlobalVoicesOnline had serially passed onto the Internet a set of extraordinary photographs that had been released by FUNAI, the Brazilian agency of Indian affairs. Spectacular as these photos are,

the Brazilian blogosphere quickly became equally lost, obsessing over the fact that the global media had taken 5 days to pick up the story and had not attributed the Brazilians for the "scoop" of placing photos released by a government agency onto the Internet. One blog raised the question of who would financially gain from the photos, challenging the fact that the non-Brazilian NGO Survival International was spreading the photos under its banner, but also noting that the official government "Indian scout" seemed delighted that the mainstream media were finally paying attention to his work.

And, indeed the media are now telling the story: Jose Carlos Meirelles, an official with Brazil's Indian protection agency who was on the helicopter that overflew the tribe, said they should be left alone as much as possible. "While we are getting arrows in the face, it's fine," he told Brazil's Globo newspaper. "The day that they are well-behaved, they are finished." The story continues,

Contact with outsiders has historically been disastrous for Brazil's Indians, who now number about 350,000 compared to up to 5 million when the first Europeans arrived. "In 508 years of history, out of the thousands of tribes that exist none have adapted well to society in Brazil," said Sydney Possuelo, a former official with Brazil's Indian protection agency who founded its isolated tribes department.

In recent years, though, tribes like the Yanomami have succeeded in winning greater protection by becoming more politically organized and forming links with foreign conservationists. "It's not about making that decision for them. It's about making time and space to make that decision themselves," said David Hill of the Survival International group.

More than half of the Murunahua tribe in Peru died of colds and other illness after they were contacted as a result of development for the first time in 1996, Hill said. Sightings of such tribes are not uncommon, occurring once every few years in the Brazil-Peru border area where there are estimated to be more than 50 out of the total global number of 100 uncontacted tribes.

The deeper issue is development -- illegal logging, oil and gas prospecting, new roads and hydroelectric projects are all arriving in the region.

Coming back to the Altimira controversy, it was good to see that elements from both the blogosphere and the mediasphere are now picking up on the theme. The BBC is running a special series on the Amazon and the The Independent UK photo-journalism team of Patrick and Sue Cunningham and the NGO International Rivers have provided excellent coverage as I reported previously. And now Julie McCarthy of National Public Radio has provided an in-depth report on the current "Weekend Edition" that you can listen to or read the transcript here.

One of the excellent aspects of Julie's story is that she fully lays out the context that had preceded the violence in Altimira and offers an explanation for the fierce stance of the woman pictured at the beginning of this post. She spoke with the photographer Sue Cunningham, who tells of her experiences taking the pictures in the Indian villages,

"I had a number of experiences in the 48 villages of women coming up to me with tears streaming down their face — totally naked, painted black, aggressive and nasty, saying, 'Who are you? Please, whatever you are doing here — tell those people not to construct the dams. Where will I run with my children? Where will I find food? What boats will take me where?'"

Julie, continues her report, "Streaked black, Kayapo tribe leader Tuira could have been one of those women. At the mass gathering opposing the dam, she wields a machete and a sharp tongue. 'You've come here to make this dam, and you think you can just push us aside. But I am not afraid!' she cries. 'I am not a child or an orphan. And together we are strong and we can fight back.'"

Perhaps this is also what Jose Carlos Meirelles (the FUNAI official quoted above) meant when he stated, "The day that they are well-behaved, they are finished."

Many have been "finished." The history of the last 500 years of conquest over nature and indiginous peoples is not pretty. And yet, people still say, "Development is inevitable, civilization and modernity must keep progressing. After all, look at what we have now. What really has been lost?"

On the same day that I listened to Julie McCarthy's NPR report, I listened to another public radio story from the Canadian Broadcasting Company whose weekend Science Program, "Quirks and Quarks" had a special report on Terra Preta soils entitled Bio-char: Black is the new Green. The program reports that "Thousands of years ago, Amazonian farmers plowed charcoal into their land to increase its fertility, creating Terra Preta, or black earth. Today, researchers are learning from these prehistoric farmers to make a new kind of black earth that will increase the sustainability of farming and provide a way to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide and global warming."

The promise of Terra Preta is great -- feed hungry people, reverse global warming, slow or halt deforestation, create sustainablity and harmony between people and nature, and on and on. The only problem is that we still haven't been able to quite figure out how to make these special soils and there's no way to find out about the old ways because there are no surviving generations to tell us the stories. They all died from the diseases that were carried into the region with the first contact with Europeans.