Friday 27 February 2009

Future perfect

The article I wrote for the American Conservative last August, "Future Perfect," has been reprinted on Energy Bulletin, for those who are interested. I highly recommend Energy Bulletin in general -- it is one of the few sites I ritually check every morning, a clearinghouse of the genuinely important news.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Neil Postman

I was just thinking of writing something about Neil Postman, and here Rod Dreher posts about him this morning.

I've admired Postman since I was a teenager, and think every young person should read his books before plunging too deeply into a virtual world. He was one of the world’s great noticers – to use David Foster Wallace’s metaphor, he wanted us to be aware of the water we swim in.

Postman's central idea, after Marshall McLuhan, was that the media shapes the message. Stories -- including the stories that tell us where we came from and where we are in the world -- are different when they are told around a campfire vs. when they are symbols in a book, vs. when they are digitally morphed on a screen.

In his most famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he noted that, for its first 150 years, the United States was a print society -- the first presidents would probably not have been recognized had they walked down the street. Their images were not important, but their words and ideas were. Lincoln and Douglas spoke to farmers for hours in summer fields, using oratory that, when transcribed, creates far more complex prose than what we silently read today.

In the age of television, Postman notes, (he died as the Internet was just coming into its own) everything -- politics, religion, life -- is presented as entertainment, and we are often passive spectators. We cannot remember the words of most leaders, except as sound bites, but our presidents have been handsome, even movie stars. William Howard Taft and Abraham Lincoln could not be presidents today.

In The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman noted that childhood itself is a concept that was little-used in oral cultures; the young were trained how to live, but they were not educated in the sense we think of today. Childhood was an invention of the printing press, that time after infancy and before full adulthood when people learned to read, and to be familiar with the things everyone thought ought to be read. In the 1600s through the 1900s, people believed children to be innocent, set up separate games and places for them, dressed them in clothes very different than those worn by adults. Today, he said, all these things are changing -- children are assumed to be more adult, and adults more childlike.

He did not hate or shun technology, even though one of his last books was entitled Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. He allowed that television takes and gives -- overt hatred, he believed, looks silly on television, and has declined.

Rather, he understood that, when we use a single window on the world, we forget what lies outside the boundaries. We tend to ignore the parts of the world that are not Googlable, bored by the forms of democracy and piety that have not become vaudeville.

I think about that when I see each new kind of writing – e-mail, Facebook, texting – become less like epistles and more like semaphore. They are not inherently bad – I’m writing this blog post on the Internet – but I want people to find a balance, keep technology in the appropriate place, and retain the capacity for prose.

Saturday 14 February 2009


All of us live in homes that are dependent on larger systems to operate: electrical grids, heating and plumbing. Most of our homes require large amounts of energy to run, which we burn fossil fuels to acquire. We also have all kinds of waste products – tires, soda cans – that fill up landfills, never to be used again.

A few decades ago, however, one American began to think through, meticulously, how many of these problems could solve each other. Michael Reynolds called his solution the Earthship, a home built to be as efficient and self-sufficient as possible, using mostly free materials that are either natural or recycled.

To maintain a constant temperature, Reynolds planned for his Earthship homes to be surrounded by earth on three sides, usually built into hillsides. As the weight of a hill would make straight cement walls unstable, Reynolds created walls made of earth-filled tires, curved to allow the hill’s pressure to dissipate around the structure.

Tires turned out to be an inspired choice for building material – there are more than two billion old tires in the world, they do not biodegrade naturally, but they do hold earth well, and a wall of connected tires covered with a plaster can be very sturdy, earthquake-resistant and fire-resistant.

Reynolds also designed the top of the structure to catch rainwater to use for the household, and the buried sides to insulate the house. Other spaces around the front can be made with cement – but Reynolds likes to use old soda cans as filler, to make the structures lighter and to save money buying cement.

On the south face of the Earthship, Reynolds placed large windows under an overhanging roof, letting the low sun into the house in the winter when it’s most needed, and keeping the high sun out during the summer when it’s needed least. All day, the sun warms the interior walls and floor of the Earthship, which release the heat slowly over the cold night. Inside the front windows Reynolds recommends growing useful plants indoors, which can supply food and herbs and soak up wastewater from the sink and bath.

The effect of all this is a home that anyone can build themselves, using readily available materials, and that will stand up to time and the elements.
The Earthship concept grew by word-of-mouth, and now there are Earthships – using very little energy and largely off-the-grid – in almost every state of the U.S. England just saw its first Earthships a few years ago, and the first Irish Earthship is set to begin construction soon.

If you are considering building a home yourself, look into the Earthship design – check out Michael Reynold’s books, Earthship I, II and III, or Google “Earthship,” and consider learning more about this ingenious method.

Photo used with permission of Gaia Engineering.

Thursday 12 February 2009

John Seymour

One thing I forgot to mention about the Feile (post below): when the great Davie Philip spoke before the audience of 200 or so, he mentioned knowing John Seymour. I know Davie, but I had no idea he knew John Seymour, and later I found they had been arrested together in an environmental protest, when Davie was in his 30s and Seymour in his 80s.

Seymour, who died a few years ago, was a remarkable man -- we own many of his books on self-sufficiency, and would recommend them to almost anyone. He had been a sea captain, lived with Bushmen in the Kalahari, fought in World War II and finally settled in County Wexford, just south of us. He wrote the definitive works on self-reliant living, and was a "back-to-the-land" advocate when it was least fashionable, only later acquiring admirers in the then-tiny environmental movement. He reminded me of an Irish Wendell Berry, but instead of Berry's beautiful essays and poetry, he wrote step-by-step manuals that had their own utilitarian beauty.

He fits almost perfectly the "crunchy conservative" label -- traditional, populist and courteously radical. He died just before we arrived here. I wish I had met him.

Wednesday 11 February 2009

Greens in the halls of power

I finished my article for Green Horizons magazine, and have permission to publish an excerpt here. The article traces the first 18 months of Ireland's Green Party, Comhaontas Glas, which became part of the ruling coalition here in mid-2007 after forging an alliance with the largest and most conservative party.

... Many Greens had hoped that the mid-2007 election would be their breakthrough year. It was the first election since issues like peak oil and climate change, long derided as fringe issues, percolated into the mainstream. It was only the second election of the Celtic Tiger, which transformed the previously agrarian backwater into a prosperous nation. It also came after widespread dissatisfaction with the dominant Fianna Fail (rhymes with tall) party – the party’s leader, Bertie Ahern, was under investigation for corruption, and had to step down shortly after the election.

At first, though, the election changed little. Fianna Fail held control with 45 percent of the Dail (Irish Congress, rhymes with boil), while the Greens held only four percent. One thing that did change, however, was that Fianna Fail’s old coalition partner lost most of their seats, and FF needed a new ally to have a majority. Armchair politicos put minor parties together like jigsaw pieces to create new alliances, but FF reached out to the Greens, and after days of tough negotiations, the Greens approved the deal.

... The Greens also got several reforms out of the deal. Shortly after attaining power, they received a quick commitment on climate change from the Irish government. Agriculture Minister Trevor Sargent, formerly the head of the GP, said that “smart metering” is being implemented in a pilot programme to 21,000 homes – an infrastructure change that will both save energy and pave the way for replacing centralized power plants with a network of solar, tidal and wind power generators.

Building codes have also changed radically in Ireland. “It has long frustrated people who understood that we weren’t going to heat our homes well under old codes in a world with less energy,” Sargent said. “We have instituted much stricter energy-saving standards, and we have cancelled developments that didn’t meet these standards, that ordinarily would have gone through.”

Sargent, perhaps the only world leader to ride his bicycle to work every morning, said he is particularly proud of the new government’s commitment to organic food and Farmers’ Markets – the government’s new policies, he said, will increase organic food production 500 percent by 2012.

The magazine, with the rest of the article, should be out by spring.

Monday 9 February 2009

Feile Bridhe

It is said that the future is already here, just not widely distributed yet. It might be the one person on your block who is growing a Victory Garden, the business down the street that switched to solar, the farm that is stockpiling the world’s last seeds of some useful strain of plant, the schoolchildren who are raising money for pen-pals their age in Rwanda. There are millions of people around the world, each with their own jigsaw piece, and on days like today in Kildare town, dozens of them come together at once.

Today was the culmination of Feile Bridhe (FEY-la BREED), the Festival of St. Brigid, one of Ireland’s most beloved icons. Known for helping the poor and standing up to authority, Brigid became a leader in the Irish Catholic Church back when it was largely independent of the Pauline Romans – when they took over, one stops seeing records of female leaders. She founded Kil-dara (Church of the Oak Tree) Abbey some 1,600 years ago, and for more than a thousand years it was a major centres of learning for Ireland and, during the Dark Ages, the world. Its ancient tower, which was being erected as Rome was falling, still stands outside of town – now behind the Starbucks.

The whole town has been celebrating Feile Bridhe with dozens of little festivities – solemn pilgrimages to Bridhe’s Well outside of town, Irish musicians and dancing, school plays and pageants. Today’s event, though, was the annual conference put on by the Irish charity group Afri.

Afri was founded in 1975 to help poverty in the Third World, said director Joe Murray, but in the 1980s turned its attention to the local causes of global poverty. For years they have organized a march to remember the Irish Famine and to call attention to global famine in Africa. In 1993 Afri hosted the first Feile Bridhe, which Murray said was supposed to be one-off event, but was so successful that it has continued to the present.

This year’s Afri conference brought together local organisations with global organizers, about 200 people all told, into the Derby Hotel in Kildare town. Frida Berrigan -- daughter and niece of Catholic priests and activists Daniel and Phillip Berrigan - started off the speakers, and her dense, fascinating speech brought to life the world of the global arms trade, a world we rarely see covered in the media. Expanding on the same theme was native Irishman and former UN official Dennis Halliday, who oversaw the “Oil for Food” programme in Iraq in the Clinton years and left in protest, becoming a sharp critic of the U.S. federal government’s policy in Iraq under Democrats and Republicans alike.

The event brought these well-known figures together with local leaders. I was able to meet Anita and Tommy Hayes, the founders of Irish Seed Savers, whose organization in County Clare is like a global Noah’s Ark of plants. I've visited their land a number of times -- I took a course there two years ago, learning how to build in cob -- but had never met them in person.

Also speaking was Davie Philip of the Dublin-based group Cultivate, which is creating a six-million-euro eco-village in County Tipperary. Jackie Bourke, founder of the Irish organisation Playtime, had a booth about schools growing edible gardens, which teach children horticulture and supply healthy food as well. On a less serious note, Ireland’s resident celebrity chef Richard Corrigan demonstrated how to make a healthy meal fast using only local products.

Various people spoke about the Transition Town movement, a global network of towns planning for a world after peak oil and climate change. The movement began in Kinsale, Ireland in 2005, and there are now Transition Towns in 14 countries, including New Zealand, Chile, Italy and Japan. Kildare Town became one of the latest Transition Towns last year.

Finally, it was time for my group, FADA, to take the stage, and we did something a little different. My colleagues broadcast a news programme from the year 2020, a mockumentary tour of the area from twelve years on if FADA and similar groups accomplish our goals. One member, for example, described St. Stephen's Green in Dublin much as it is now, but with the old electric streetcars restored, Farmers' Markets returned to the area, the Green turned into vegetable farms that fed much of the city, and more bicycles on the roads than cars.

The point was that such changes would require only incremental, attainable changes with no need for new technology, and would leave Stephen's Green (or whereever) looking similar to the way it looks now -- but would turn it into a much more sustainable urban centre, generating massive amounts of food for the city while using little energy. Such skits can give audiences a wholesome, sanguine image of the future we are working toward, and help them see how tantalizingly close it is.

Photo: The road into Kildare at sunset.