Sunday 28 June 2009

More Thomas Berry

Sorry about the break there -- posting will be lighter than usual this week.

The following is from a 1993 conversation with Father Thomas Berry at his home in North Carolina. John Lane and Thomas Rain Crowe interviewed him for Appalachian Voices magazine.

JL: What was this area of the Piedmont like in 1920, when you were growing up, when you were a boy?

TB: Well, there was much more animal life! Frogs, deer, and birds in particular. That’s one thing I remembered. Never ran into many wolves, as they were pretty well gone at that time. I did walk in the woods a great deal when I was a child. Already, the woods and nature were the most important things in my life.

By the time I was ten or eleven years old, I had a feeling that something was wrong. I didn’t, of course, have the least idea of what this was all about, but I grew up with the feeling that I couldn’t trust the developing industrial world in which I was living.

… JL: There is a doctrine that’s developing in some evangelical churches that’s called “cultural mandate” about subduing the earth. Have you heard about this and have you thought about it? Is that a disturbing development to you?

TB: I’ve heard about it. To subdue the Earth? There are churches wherein this is a developing doctrine now. It’s about subordination rather than finding a way to become better stewards. We need to be finding more ways to learn. In fact, the more precise translation of the contemporary Biblical passage which modern man is familiar and that says “And man shall have dominion over all the land” is really closer in translation to “And man shall be steward to the land.”

I would say that this whole direction by the contemporary church is a total misreading of the Christian religion as well as all other religions. All religions are founded on our experiences with the earth and the universe. St. Thomas, a great thinker in the Catholic tradition, lived in the thirteenth century, but is still a wonderful teacher, and his teachings are still available to us. He always said that the universe symbolizes the hopeless perfection in things.

One can look at it this way: From the standpoint of existence, the divine is primary, and the universe is derivative. On the order of human knowledge, the universe is primary and the divine is consequential. The very nature of religion robs itself of the perception that the universe is not self-explanatory ...

JL: So, how do we read this landscape that’s being decimated by developers as a creative landscape? Rather than wanting to “redeem” it and at the same time not wanting to save it? I don’t know if you’ve seen or heard the recent “news” on the failure of environmentalists. “The death of the environmental movement,” some have said.

TB: They are saying, the opposition that is, that the environmental people are missing the point somewhere. That is quite terrible. They (the nay-sayers) are missing the point of the larger issue. And one of the ways they are missing the point is that they don’t understand how the human mind functions.

Humans can be described as “that being in whom the universe reflects on itself in a conscious mode of self-reflection.” We humans actually enable the planet Earth because we are members of the planet Earth. We enable the Earth to reflect on itself.

We’re doing a terrible job with what knowledge we have. It’s not that the knowledge is wrong. It’s that we don’t know how to use it. This is one of the basic failures of science. Science does not instruct us on how to use science.

JL: Talking about children is a good place to ask some questions about population. When you were a child growing up in North Carolina, there were less than two billion humans on the planet. And as predicted, the world’s population rose to 6.5 billion in about twenty five years. This all happening in your lifetime. The South is the fastest growing region in the country. Can the South survive? Can we, as Southerners, survive this population boom?

TB: I don’t think we can. It would be very difficult to survive with that much population. It goes against all odds with regard to carrying capacity. And it’s here that religion has been at fault. Especially the Catholic religion--which has failed extensively in not paying attention to the decline of the natural world, and in this way it’s losing its own foundations, because the biblical world is thoroughly cosmological. Rituals are cosmological. They presuppose the universe.

I was in a monastery for ten years. I didn’t even come home to Greensboro, where my family resided, during that time--between the ages of twenty to thirty. In the monastery, we’d celebrate dawn with prayers and meditations. And we’d celebrate the mid-day, and celebrate the early evening. At vespers, we’d celebrate the early evening, and then the late evening, which was wonderful! Then I’d get up at two-o’clock in the morning and I’d have these experiences with hymns that would be sung according to the time of day and seasons of the year. The whole of that monastic literature was woven into the cosmological cycle. The scriptures, the book-of-songs was thoroughly cosmological.

Thanks to Tennessee's amazing Albert Bates for reminding me of this interview.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

FADA update

The group is doing well here in County Kildare. We unveiled our new community garden recently -- "Bia Linn," or "Our Food" -- and bit by bit we have accumulated tools, earth, plants, seeds and people. Some members of our group came in with wood and nails, and hammered together garden beds. One person brought a water barrel, one a composter, several brought laundry-sized planting tubs. Bord na Mona, the Irish fuel company, donated tonnes of topsoil, and our chair carved a wooden sign for the entrance.

My FADA colleague Ciara Bennett has done an amazing job organising the facility, and already, just a few weeks into the project, the place is covered in beans, peas, cucumbers, pumpkins, cabbages and blackcurrant bushes. Ciara was on the local radio station's chat show talking about it, I also did an interview for the news, and we've had several newspaper articles and columns already.

We will be hosting another Feile na Samhna (Halloween Festival) this year -- the last one was a great success, bringing many area residents in to meet local beekeepers, weavers, growers, alternative teachers, and so on. It managed to combine the festive (puppet shows for the kids, craft workshops, dancing, indie films) with the serious (talks and community discussions of peak oil, climate change and the coming hard times). Those things might seem incompatible, but they blended well -- a student theater group, for example, presented short plays about post-peak life, like James Howard Kunstler's World Made by Hand, but sunnier.

Other people in FADA will be refining the 2020 show -- a fake newscast from County Kildare in the future, after a small but critical mass of people have made a few simple changes. It's a funny and inspiring antidote to the doomer view of the future -- I'll post it here when it's ready. I'll also post the new web site here as soon as it's done.

Monday 22 June 2009

Sunday 21 June 2009


Elders are not conspicuous trees most of the year, and their branches usually blend into the rest of the greenery in a hedge. For a few short weeks in June, though, they burst into elderflowers, and clusters of the large white blossoms line our roads and fields.

The berries that come in June can be made into a jam that preserves vitamin C in winter, but the flowers themselves also have many uses. Elderflower champagne, a mildly alcoholic drink, can be made with nothing more than elderflowers, lemons, yeast, bottles, and two weeks.

Peel the rinds off two lemons, squeeze their juice into the bucket and throw the lemons and elderflowers in as well. Pour in a kilogram of sugar and two tablespoons of white wine vinegar. Then pour in eight litres of water, stir until the sugar is completely dissolved and let stand for 24 hours.

The next day or so, strain the mixture and pour it into bottles – large plastic jugs do fine for us. Set them in a cool place for about two weeks, and test the result. The yeast should develop by itself, but some people put a pinch of bread yeast in the bottles before sealing them, just to make sure. Try different approaches and see what works for you.

One easy use for elderflowers is in pancakes. Clip some elderflowers and wash them lightly, making sure to clip off the stem below the flower right below where it divides. To make the batter, just crack two eggs into a large bowl and stir until smooth, then mix in 120g of flour – the result should be so thick it is difficult to stir. Then slowly add 250 ml milk until the mixture is runny but not watery.

Put small pan with a little oil under medium-high heat, pour in the batter so that it covers the whole pan in a thin layer, and set one full elderflower into the batter face-down. After a minute or so – whenever the underside of the pancake gets golden-brown – flip it over and fry the other side for another minute or so.

If the only pans you have are large ones, you could put three or four elderflowers in one pan. The flowers add a fruity taste to the pancakes, as blueberries would. Elderflower extract is also used to make pancakes, but using the flowers themselves is simpler and more direct.

Do make sure you don’t pick elderflowers from the side of the road or where exhaust could contaminate the plants with heavy metals. Also, make sure you have actual elderflowers and not poisonous Queen Anne’s Lace or some other broad white flower. Elderflowers grow on elder trees and bushes, Queen Anne from green stems on the ground. If it’s lower than a metre off the ground, it’s probably something else.

Friday 19 June 2009

A few more notes on the Irish election

Ireland maintains a blurring of lines between church and state that, in America, I would find frightening – all public schools, for example, are nominally Catholic schools. It doesn’t bother me here, though, because both state and church are very different. The Irish government has problems, but it doesn’t regularly invade and occupy Third-World countries as the U.S. federal government does, nor does it maintain several hundred overseas bases – the military exists for the defence of borders, and that's it.

Religion is also different here. It has been abused sometimes -- see the recent scandals about church abuse, or the conflict in Northern Ireland – but it is not commonly aggressive or messianic, as are modern strains of U.S. fundamentalism. When the Irish go to church, they do not imagine themselves to be giving the finger to a snobbish elite, or assembling as armies for Armageddon. They are, simply, going to church. The federal government's memos on Iraq, tying together nationalist hubris with an evangelical crusade, would not happen here.

Also, the Irish seem to have a good sense that politics is about government – roads, projects, medical care – and not celebrity sex scandals. The only micro-scandal in the last election, which involved local candidate Emma Kiernan, a girls’ night out and some subsequent Facebook photos, merely resulted in some amused newscasters and, for Kiernan, a large number of marriage proposals.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

Orlov postscript

It appears that, as I was posting my notes from Orlov's talk, he was posting the actual talk. You can find it here:


and praise for it here:

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Notes from Dmitri Orlov

Following David Korowicz at FEASTA's New Emergency Conference came Dmitri Orlov, who was his usual splash of cold water. Orlov was raised in the Soviet Union, moved to America as a child, and returned to Russia several times as its society collapsed and had to rebuild itself.

In 2005 he began giving a talk called "The Collapse Gap," suggesting not only that the United States could similarly implode but that Americans are far less prepared than Russians were. He found fans in peak oil authors like James Howard Kunstler, and spun his talks into an entertaining book, "Reinventing Collapse," which came out last year.

I had a chance to talk and sit in workshops with Orlov during the conference, and he is the same offstage as on -- intelligent, dour, darkly humourous. His unromantic, survivalist view of the future sometimes clashes with advocates of allotments and wind farms -- his talk included a gentle dig at the Transition Town movement, for example. Even if I reserve more hope for the future, he keeps the rest of us grounded.

Here are a few notes from Orlov's talk -- paraphrases, not actual quotes.

Right now we are in a situation of societal overextension. Life at $100,000 a year becomes unsustainable – life at $10,000 a year is much more sustainable.

The oil price spike in 2008 crashed the economy, much as the price spikes of the 1970s did, and in both cases the crash seemed to take place when the price of oil reached about 25 percent of global GDP – that seems to be the threshold.

We will lose our money, but there are different ways to do so. We should try not to lose our money all at once. We should try to stay out of harm’s way during the time of social chaos, and we should devote part of whatever land we have to sustainable use – woods, things like that.

We must lock down our resources, meaning mainly land, and invest in personal and group self-sufficiency. Do not hoard objects that will have limited usefulness – consumer goods, precious metals and so on. Instead, hoard objects that will have a high use value later, and decouple from the global economy as much as possible.
It is insane to sink our investment in things we don’t need, like a car industry, and not in things we will need, like health care.

By 2010-2020 we will see even steeper declines, with the natural world still largely intact. By 2020-2030 we should start seeing the destruction of much of what is left of the natural world.

No one will be able to say when the collapse happened for the world, everyone will only know when it happened to them. Some people will do better than others, leading many to deny that a wholesale collapse is taking place.

There are certain personality types who fare better than others in a collapse. People who continue with their lives indifferent to a larger catastrophe will fare well, as will people who are determined to do well, and people who are somewhat unreasonable. People who want to please everyone are likely to do poorly.

Money will be less available in the future, but there are other bases for a market. Gift-giving builds relationships and involves obligation in a way that money does not. Barter is also a useful method.

Many people will continue to have a belief in science and technology, not realising that technology requires energy, and that science is not based in belief.
Finally, we have been brought up as factory-farmed humans – institutionalised in schools, in jobs, and in other processed forms of interaction. We need to gradually become free-range humans.

Sunday 14 June 2009

More County Wicklow

FEASTA conference

On Thursday I set off in the morning as usual for Dublin, but instead of going to work I took the train to the North Dublin neighbourhood of Drumcondra, and walked to the green and secluded grounds of All Hallows College and the site of the New Emergency Conference.

The conference was hosted by FEASTA, the admirable Irish organisation of Richard Douthwaite, Corrina Byrne, Davie Phillip, Emer O’Siorchru, David Korowicz and others. These people and many others created FEASTA in 1998 to research what would be needed for a genuinely sustainable society, and to develop systems for creating it. Its research papers, pamphlets, talks and podcasts have spread the ideas of zero-growth societies, carbon trading, reformed tax systems and new uses of land.

They named their organisation FEASTA, Irish for “in the future,” after a line in an Celtic song Cill Chai:

“Cad a dheanfaimid feasta gan adhmad? Ta deireadh no gcoillte ar lar.”
“What shall we do in the future for wood? The last of the forests have gone.”

This conference brought together people from across Ireland and from many other parts of the world: Julian Darley, late of Global Public Media and the Post-Carbon Institute; Oil Drum editor Chris Vernon; “Reinventing Collapse” author Dmitri Orlov, Davie Phillip of FEASTA and the Dublin non-profit Cultivate; and many others.

I could take no more than one day off work and attend one of the conference’s three days, but I immensely enjoyed talking to the people gathered there – elderly scientists looking to the future, young activists eager to take what they learned to their own communities, people who are trying living off guinea pigs or building room-sized bio-digesters. I took notes through all the talks, and will be posting an appropriate couple of them in the next day or two.

The current crisis gets us all down sometimes, but days like this give me hope. Days like this are how it begins.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Tree wall

I mentioned a few posts ago how stone walls and plants will merge into each other, forming a unified structure over time. This tree in County Clare has had a lot of time.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

A great man passes

Father Thomas Berry -- Catholic priest, historian, theologian, ecologist and visionary -- died last week at the age of 94.

Berry was the kind of scholar and thinker that is rare in our age. He was beloved by many longtime greens, the farmers and activists who formed the Bioregional Conferences of the 1970s, for his works combining religious devotion with ecological understanding.

I corresponded with his sister in the last couple of years, hoping to interview him -- but many others wanted to see him as well, and his health was poor. There is so much I want to say about him, but the words don't come together. Maybe in time. Goodbye, Father.

This experience we observe even now in the indigenous peoples of the world. They live in a universe, in a cosmological order, whereas we, the peoples of the industrial world, no longer live in a universe. We live in a political world, a nation, a business world, an economic order, a cultural tradition, in Disneyworld. We live in cities, in a world of concrete and steel, of wheels and wires, a world of business, of work. We no longer see the stars at night or the planets or the moon. Even in the day we do not experience the sun in any immediate or meaningful manner. Summer and winter are the same inside the mall. Ours is a world of highways, parking lots, shopping centers. We read books written with a strangely contrived alphabet. We no longer read the book of the universe.

Nor do we coordinate our world of human meaning with the meaning of our surroundings. We have disengaged from that profound interaction with our environment inherent in our very nature. Our children do not learn how to read the Great Book of Nature or how to interact creatively with the seasonal transformations of the planet. They seldom learn where their water comes from or where it goes. We no longer coordinate our human celebration with the great liturgy of the heavens.

We have indeed become strange beings so completely are we at odds with the planet that brought us into being. We dedicate enormous talent and knowledge and research to developing a human order disengaged from and even predatory on the very sources whence we came and upon which we depend at every moment of our existence. We initiate our children into an economic order based on exploitation of the natural life systems of the planet. To achieve this perspective we must first make them autistic in their relation with the natural world about them. This disconnection occurs quite simply since we ourselves have become insensitive toward the natural world and do not realize just what we are doing. Yet, if we observe our children closely in their early years and see how they are instinctively attracted to the experiences of the natural world about them, we will see how disorientated they become in the mechanistic and even toxic environment that we provide for them ...

The difficulty is that with the rise of the modern sciences we began to think of the universe as a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects. We frequently identify the loss of the interior spirit-world of the human mind and emotions with the rise of modern mechanistic sciences. The more significant thing, however, is that we have lost the universe itself. We achieved extensive control over the mechanistic and even the biological functioning of the natural world, but this control itself has produced deadly consequences. We have not only controlled the planet in much of its basic functioning; we have, to an extensive degree, extinguished the life systems themselves. We have silenced so many of those wonderful voices of the universe that once spoke to us of the grand mysteries of existence.

We no longer hear the voices of the rivers or the mountains, or the voices of the sea. The trees and meadows are no longer intimate modes of spirit presence. Everything about us has become an "it" rather than a "thou." We continue to make music, write poetry, and do our painting and sculpture and architecture, but these activities easily become an aesthetic expression simply of the human and in time lose the intimacy and radiance and awesome qualities of the universe itself. We have, in the accepted universe of these times, little capacity for participating in mysteries celebrated in the earlier literary and artistic and religious modes of expression. For we could no longer live in the universe in which these were written. We could only look on, as it were.

-- From The Meadow Across the Creek, 1993.

Friday 5 June 2009

Election Day

Today is Election Day here in Ireland, and for several weeks posters have hung from telephone poles and streetlamps all along the roads. The radio news has been full of polls, debates and interviews, with each candidate gingerly demonising the opposition and proclaiming themselves the choice of hope, change, reform and whatnot.

Superficially, this sounds like any American election, and Ireland has infighting, corruption and voter apathy like anywhere else. Their electoral system, however, offers many improvements over US elections, and a freedom of choice that most of my own countrymen lack.

First of all, Ireland maintains, by law, a strict election season – the advertisements go up a month or so before the election, and must be taken down immediately after. Parties and candidates do not spend two to three years campaigning, as in my native USA, and while I don’t watch much television, I’ve never seen a campaign commercial here.

Come Election Day, Ireland’s voters rank their first, second and third choices for an office, and those are mathematically factored in when no candidate gets a clear majority – and they rarely do. Candidates put up posters for themselves, of course, but in the fine print recommend one or two other candidates to write below their own name. Greens in America have long promoted this method under the name Instant Runoff Voting, and its installation would vastly improve America’s electoral landscape.

Also, one person is not chosen to represent a region of Ireland; rather, each region sends the top three (or more, depending on population) candidates, the public’s first, second and third choices. Americans so rarely have more than two candidates in a race anyway, but here ten people might run for an office and three of them might get elected.

When this is done over an entire country, it’s called Proportional Representation. If the USA had this in our Senate races, for example, and the Democrats received 40 percent of the vote, they would get 40 percent of the seats. If 10 percent of the public – across the country, everyone voting together -- wanted to vote Libertarian, that party would get 10 Senate seats. Ireland’s smaller version, PR inside small districts, means that candidates are local, yet factions within each locality get a voice in government.

These rules, as opposed to America’s winner-take-all system, allows third parties to exist in Ireland. There are two parties much larger than the others -- Fianna Fail (Fin-a fall, rhymes with tall) and Fine Gael (Fin-a Gail, rhymes with hail) – but neither has a clear majority, and several third parties and many independents are major players as well. In a typical election, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail might each take 40 percent of the vote, but the remaining 20 percent will be divided among the Greens, Labour, the Progressive Democrats and Sinn Fein (shin fain, rhymes with rain). There is usually a healthy smattering of independent candidates as well, activists well-known in their local area and not beholden to any party. No matter which major party wins, they cannot govern unless they form a coalition with one or more other groups.

America used to be much more like Europe is now, in the late 18th and 19th centuries – third parties thrived and operated as major players on the political scene. We never had ranked voting or proportional representation, but we had electoral fusion – that is, more than one party could pick the same candidate.

This meant that, while there were two large parties, they could not elect any candidates alone – they needed to make concessions to other factions to be elected. Our history books do not reveal much of this activity for two reasons; first, they only deal with the federal government, when much of the action was at the state and local levels. Second, they tend to list the major party of national candidates, so that William Jennings Bryan is referred to only as a Democrat and not as a Populist.

Third parties only attained the presidency once – the Republicans were arguably a third party when they elected our greatest president in 1860 – but they remained a force in politics until around a hundred years ago. Then, in state after state, the two largest parties consolidated power by eliminating fusion, forcing third parties out of elections except as “spoilers” that, like bees, sting once and then die. The few states that did not do this – say, New York State – are the few that still have active third parties.

In 1996, a group of Minnesotans tried to fight this, forming a third party and endorsing a major-party candidate. After the Minnesota courts ruled their action illegal, they brought their case to the USA Supreme Court, which handed down one of their less-known and more jaw-dropping rulings -- that the USA owes its “sound and effective government (sic)” to “the emergence of a strong and stable two-party system.”

As recounted in Lisa Disch’s excellent book The Tyranny of the Two-Party System, Supreme Court justices described in terror the consequences of having multiple parties. Justice Stevens envisioned a “parade of horribles,” elections in which there would be a “newly formed ‘No New Taxes,’ ‘Conserve Our Environment’ and ‘Stop Crime Now’ parties would face off against an opponent running for ‘The Fiscal Responsibility,’ ‘Healthy Planet’ and ‘Safe Streets’ parties.” How this would be negative, or even radically different than the current system, Stevens did not say.

The presence of only two major parties in the US not only limits our choices to two extremely similar groups, it also encourages the belief that these groups are all that can exist. Belief in a left-right spectrum is ubiquitous in America, and presents a massive barrier to non-mainstream ideas– say, peak energy or localisation. Since all meaningful issues – education, crime, health, religion – are considered political in America, and politics is binary, everyone’s first and last question will be “Which side are you on?”

I’ll go into more on that last point in a later post, but for now let me just note that, contrary to what the US media claim, democracy is not an ineffable quality that the US government bestows on the world through conquest. It does not involve flags, loyalty or unity. Its actions are far more painstaking and, to mainstream US culture, feel more alien – gathering in a library basement, calling your neighbours, canvassing door to door, protesting in the streets and forming your own factions. It means you move, and move, and move, until you are a movement, and what you and your neighbours want eventually percolates into the halls of power under sustained pressure. It means people get a chance to vote for what they want, and get to vote for parties that believe in it.

Ireland’s politics need a lot of reforming, but one fact stands out for me. Most Irish people vote – between 60 and 90 percent, depending on the election – perhaps because they know their vote counts for something.

In my country, most people don’t vote – not because they are stupid or callous, but because they think that their vote counts for nothing. And they are usually right.