Sunday, 19 February 2017

The changing face of college

Most of my readers know that I count John Michael Greer, author of "The Archdruid Report" and many books, as one of my main influences, and I often comment on his posts. Some time ago he wrote about the changing face of college in the Western World -- especially the USA, and I added my own thoughts. 

College, he pointed out, has evolved from being an advanced institution for elite specialists to a prerequisite for a good job, and a massive machine for keeping young Americans indebted through their best years. I commented: 

This was before my time, but when I read accounts of college in the late 19th to the late 20th century, a few things stand out:

1. Massachusetts in 1850 was estimated to have a 98% literacy rate, and you could probably find similar rates for most of what is now the USA – far higher than the USA’s literacy today.

2. At the same time, people took for granted that college was not for most people. Clarence Hall Robison’s “Agricultural Instruction in the Public Schools of the United States,” published in 1911, wrote that public schools “have a duty to the majority of its students who will not go to college.” They didn’t mean that students would miss out on college because they were poor – although there was some of that – but that most would become normal farmers, printers, builders, carpenters, and so on. Being a professor isn’t everyone’s speciality in life, and they knew that.

3. College sports involved students showing up to support their fellow students, not millions going into a money-making machine of television contracts, bidding, scholarships and sponsorships. Look at a picture of fans at a sports game circa, say, 1950, and you’ll see no screaming or painted faces, no obese people, no beer-cap cans – just rows of healthy-looking teenagers in suits and ties. It was a social, formal event, like a dance, and people dressed up for the occasion.

4. Most students took courses to specialise in their field, but then, in their final year, took a “capstone” course, taught by the dean or some venerated professor, to tie together everything they had learned. The idea was to bring the disparate strands of education together into a common cause, as they would all be members of the same society.

5. By the time I got to college in the 1990s, of course, some courses existed solely to teach grade-school-level remedial reading, and the fashion was for literature and film teachers to ignore things like plot and characters and focus instead on the lurid sexual subtext they imagined to be there. It was all very postmodern and useless.

Photo: 1943-44 Michigan Wolverines basketball team.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Rise and fall

I’ve been giving these lessons to you a really long time, since you were little, and I haven’t just taught you anything – it’s been to fill the gaps, to teach what you won’t learn in any school. Sometimes we focus on the classics, on Greek and Roman mythology, ancient history, literature and philosophy – stories like the Iliad and Odyssey, the histories of Solon and Socrates. I wanted to teach you these things because they tell you how people worked out how to first do democracy or science, so that people can do them again.

Now, I said, I want to see how you can tie this all together. I drew a bell curve on paper and asked her what the shape represented.

“It’s a rise and fall,” she said with adolescent impatience. “I learned that when I was seven – it’s second nature to me now.”

Rise and fall of what? I asked.

“Well, if a species gets out of control, and grows exponentially, then it has a die-off, and the carrying capacity of the area goes down for a while.”

What does it look like for humans?

“Well, civilisations,” she said, “they rise and fall like that, which is kind of the same thing – populations go up when a civilisation rises, and go down when they fall.”

Where do you think we are on this curve? I asked.

“I think we’re near the top,” she said, “And things will start declining, if they haven’t already.” She said this casually, unperturbed by this. I’ve never told her these things; I just brought her up with a lot of lessons about how living systems work. She knew about resource use, carrying capacity and overshoot when she was still little, and those natural rhythms are as familiar to her as the change of the seasons.

What sorts of things often happen during a decline? I asked.

“Well, more people die, or fewer people are born, or both,” she said, “People get stupider than usual -- they do a lot of misguided things. You get a lot of political disruption, and sometimes anarchy.” Is anarchy the worst option? I asked.

“No -- well, it’s mixed,” she said, “Because it has disadvantages, but so does civilisation. I mean, it depends on what kind of anarchy or civilisation we’re talking about.”

I think you’re right, I said. In movies, when things get rough, people turn on each other – but in real life, they often get better. Old people around here tell me that Irish people got worse when people got more money – back when everyone had very little, you could count on people more. On the other hand, less civilisation means you can only count on your tribe – you can’t turn to higher authorities, because there aren’t any. Both can be very fulfilling, or deeply unfair.

“Right now I think we’re at a height of civilisation,” she said.

Possibly, I said – pointing at the bell curve line -- but what do you think this line represents?

“Population?” she asked.

It could be, or it could be energy use, or carbon dioxide emissions – they’ve all gone up together, and they’ll probably all go down together, along with other things like science and art. But I teach you these things in the hopes that you can disentangle the good things about civilisation and pass them on to your own children.

So, for example, the germ theory of disease – we now know that diseases are caused by germs and boiling water and antiseptic chemicals kill germs, and that knowledge saves a lot of lives. We only found that out recently, in the foothills of this curve, but it’s not tied to our annual energy waste – we could keep that knowledge even as things go down, and keep everyone healthy.

The same is true of vaccinations, or double-blind testing, or the rules of town-hall democracy; no matter what else gets shaky in the years ahead, we can keep alive the knowledge of how these things are supposed to work. If we disentangle the good from the bad, I told her, people could stay quite civilised during a decline and fall.

And just as a rising civilisation makes some things better and worse, a decline could also make things better and worse – we’re using words like “rise” and “decline,” but every rise in something is a decline in something else. The rise and fall could look like this, I said, turning the curve upside down. “In some ways, people’s humanity went down, and it will go up again,” she said.

Maybe, I said – the modern world takes some of our humanity away, but humanity isn’t all good either. Remember what Aristotle said? Goodness isn’t the opposite of evil, but a delicate balance between evils.

“I wish we could just keep the good things and keep society in one straight line indefinitely,” she said. That would be the ultimate K culture, I said, referring to our many lessons about R and K species. I think of something like The Shire from Lord of the Rings as a K culture.

“Isn’t that a good thing?” she said.

I would say mostly, I said – if I moved to the Shire, there are a few things I’d miss, but that’s a pretty civilised life. You can try to create that kind of world yourself, I told her, in a homestead or Benedict Option community, and set an example for others.

“The bad thing about a civilisation going downhill might not be the downhill part, but the going part,” she said. “Dark Ages aren’t that bad, but getting there is painful. If I could, I’d start working on a civilisation at its height, and make sure that everything went down as slowly as possible, so that no one could feel a change. Everyone would be like, ‘Oh, it’s always been this way,’ and the downhill slope would be too gentle to hurt anyone. That’s what I wish.”

That’s a noble ambition, I said – and if you’re right, and we’re at the height of a civilisation now, then you’re in a perfect position to try to make it happen.

“Oh, I don’t think anyone will listen to me,” she said diffidently.

Not everyone, I said – but if a few people do, that’s a few more than no one.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Working with straw

These days, human-scale straw bales have been largely replaced by mammoth cylinders that require mammoth farm equipment; another way we have used the cheap energy of recent decades to burn our bridges. If you can find some of the old rectangular, metre-long bales, however, they can be put to many uses. 

On the Great Plains of North America, people stacked them inside a frame to create walls, which were then covered in mud plaster. This technique, pioneered by 19th-century settlers to the Great Plains, is seeing a comeback as people discover the value of energy-efficient buildings. Straw is plentiful, does not require the clearing of forests, can form load-bearing walls or can simply insulate. It is easy to work with, and can be stacked and plastered by amateurs. Gathering and baling it does no damage to the environment, and the building waste can be composted.  

It is also one of the best insulating materials around. Insulation is measured in “R-values,” and the higher the R-value, the less heat escapes the home. Most conventional homes are estimated to be R-12 to R-20; most bale homes, R-30 to R-50.  

Isn’t straw flammable, you ask? Loose straw is, but bales are tightly compressed, and are no more flammable than wood. The National Research Council of Canada, for example, found that a straw bale wall withstood temperatures of up to 1,850 degrees C for two hours. 

Nor can any wolf blow the house down – the Building Research Center of the University of New South Wales, Australia found in 1998 that bale walls withstood winds up to 134 miles per hour – equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane.

The disadvantage to building with it is that it is quite sensitive to moisture, so it must be either kept dry until sealed with plaster or used for temporary structures like barns and sheds, for example. I would also like to hear from more people who experimented with simply stacking straw bales around a house for insulation during the winter, and removed them as need be.

To find out if bale building is for you, consult books like “Serious Straw Bale” by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron, or “More Straw Bale Building” by Chris Magwood. 

If your ambitions don’t run towards experimental architecture, however, you could plant a garden directly inside straw bales. First line up bales, long side to long side, to create a garden bed, and water them as you would the rest of your garden for a few days. For a week or so after that, keep watering but add nitrogen and phosphorous -- stir some chicken manure in your watering can, leave it for a few days and pour the resulting liquid over the bales. Urine is also great to add, applied in whatever way does not violate local ordinances.

After doing this for two weeks – just water for a few days, then water-with-fertilizer for a week and a half – punch a row of holes in the bales. Set a handful of rich compost into the hole, and plant a seedling in the earth. Sprinkle some earth on top across the entire top of the bale, and water as you would any other garden plants. The straw bale decays as the plant grows, until the plant can stretch more roots directly through the composting straw. 

An approach like this can create a temporary raised bed, allowing the elderly and people with back problems to garden a raised bed without having to bend over all the time, until they can afford the lumber to create more permanent structures. It helps make the garden unreachable by rabbits and many pests. It helps cut down on the amount of soil you have to use, and since all soil contains weed seeds, it reduces the amount of weeding – although some of the grass seed will inevitably sprout. And, again, when the bales are disintegrating, they become compost, and nothing is wasted.